Could Romney take Ryan down with him?

What seemed like the biggest break of Paul Ryan's political life might end up being a curse

Published September 25, 2012 11:45AM (EDT)

Grumbling from conservatives about Paul Ryan’s muted presence in the White House race could be a positive development for the Wisconsin congressman’s long-term political prospects. But it’s also possible that Ryan will end up ruing the day he accepted the offer to team up with Mitt Romney.

When Ryan was picked, many on the right hoped that the GOP ticket would run on Ryan’s budget blueprint, which calls for radical tax cuts for the wealthy, sweeping reductions in the federal social safety net, and the transformation of Medicare into a quasi-voucher program.

Instead, Ryan has been forced to present himself as a generic vice presidential candidate, disowning his own program and running on Romney’s intentionally non-specific platform.  This puts him in line with the Romney brain trust’s conviction that the weak economy will ultimately prompt swing voters to turn on Obama and that Romney will best be positioned to capture their votes if he’s seen as a competent but inoffensive protest vehicle.

If Romney were now leading in the polls, the right would be fine with this. But as the reality of his plight –a persistent three- or four-point gap – has sunk in, they’ve reacted with frustration and anger. The calls for Romney to “unleash” Ryan represent one of the forms this panic has taken.

One way to understand this, as Ed Kilgore explained yesterday, is that conservatives genuinely believe that their Obama-era worldview has broad appeal, and that if a telegenic true believer like Ryan were out there preaching it, they’d win in a cakewalk. But there’s also a longer-term play here. By loudly complaining about the neutering of Ryan now, conservatives are positioning themselves to claim vindication if Romney-Ryan ticket goes down to defeat: See, we told you we needed to be more conservative!

In theory, this will position the ambitious Ryan nice to segue from a 2012 loss into a bid for his party’s 2016 nomination. I tried to be a team player, he could tell conservatives, and I was just as frustrated as you – now let’s go out and run our kind of campaign!

But there’s also a possibility that Ryan’s sterling reputation with conservatives will be reduced by this campaign. As Craig Robinson, the former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party, told the New York Times this week: “I hate to say this, but if Ryan wants to run for national office again, he’ll probably have to wash the stench of Romney off of him.”

Here the story of Ryan’s political mentor offers a cautionary tale, because it was the right’s disappointment with Jack Kemp’s performance as Bob Dole’s running-mate in 1996 that extinguished Kemp’s White House hopes once and for all.

Kemp was in a different place than Ryan when he was offered the V.P slot – nearly 20 years older and no longer a day to day player in government. But he was still a bona fide conservative star, an original evangelizer for supply-side economics who also enjoyed wide respect from the media for his efforts to broaden the GOP’s appeal to non-white voters. In the wake of the 1992 election, Kemp initially seemed like the front-runner for the party’s ’96 nod, but he declined to run (in part because of the heat he and Bill Bennett took for campaigning against California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994) and by the summer of ’96 had become something of a forgotten man. Until Dole came calling.

Dole added Kemp to the ticket in an effort to motivate conservatives and make a splash with a big name. At first, it worked. The right loved the pick and Dole’s decision to run on a Kemp-inspired call for a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut. But by the middle of September, it was clear the Dole-Kemp ticket was going nowhere. Polls put Clinton and Al Gore ahead by between 15 and 20 points, and Republicans began agitating for a new approach, one rooted in blunt attacks on the president’s character.

Dole himself was reluctant to comply, partly because his campaign was playing up his own character (and World War II heroism) so aggressively. When Dole treated Clinton with respect and civility in their first debate, the pressure mounted on Kemp to use the vice presidential debate to tear into Clinton. When Kemp and Gore met on October 9, moderator Jim Lehrer raised the issue with his first question:

LEHRER: So, we go now to the first question and to Mr. Kemp. Some supporters of Senator Dole have expressed disappointment over his unwillingness in Hartford Sunday night to draw personal and ethical differences between him and President Clinton. How do you feel about it?

KEMP: Wow, in 90 seconds? I can't clear my throat in 90 seconds. Jim, Bob Dole and myself do not see Al Gore and Bill Clinton as our enemy. We see them as our opponents. This is the greatest democracy in the world. People are watching not only throughout this country, but all over the world as to how this democracy can function with civility and respect, and decency and integrity. Bob Dole, um, is one of those men who served in the United States Senate, his public life is a public record. He fought on the battlefield. He has worked with Democrats and Republicans. In my opinion, it is beneath Bob Dole to go after anyone personally….

And that was pretty much it. The right was baffled and appalled by Kemp’s refusal to take the gloves off. By the end of the election, he was pretty much a forgotten man all over again. As Republicans began thinking about 2000, there were a few obligatory mentions of Kemp in the media, but there was no movement on the right to rally round him, and he withdrew his name from consideration early in the process. For a brief moment in the summer of ’96, Kemp’s political career had been dramatically revived. But his performance on the campaign trail, and his association with a campaign Republicans badly wanted to forget, proved fatal to any post-’96 ambitions he might have had.

Ryan may be insulated against conservative disappointment in ways that Kemp wasn’t, but if the GOP ticket’s fortunes don’t improve, he could end up facing the same pressure Kemp did heading into his debate with Gore.  And if he doesn’t then give conservatives what they want, Ryan could pay a long-term price. After all, it’s not like the right won’t have other options in ’16.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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Bob Dole Jack Kemp Mitt Romney Opening Shot Paul Ryan