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In selecting Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan to be his running mate Saturday morning, Mitt Romney did something wildly out of character: He took a big risk. Until now, the guiding strategy of the Romney campaign has been to avoid any and all risks, in the faith that the election would be a referendum on President Obama and the state of the economy, something Romney would surely win. That’s why Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Ohio Senator Rob Portman were favorites for the veep choice. Both are steady, competent, and dull. In a perfect world, Romney would have been delighted to select one of them (“delighted” is probably the word he’d use, too).
Romney lost faith in that strategy. Most polls have shown him narrowly but consistently behind and slightly further behind in battleground states. His theory of the race was looking shaky. The economy seemed to weaken over the summer, but the talk wasn’t about Obama’s leadership or jobs record. It was all about Romney—his tax returns, his Swiss bank account, his overseas gaffes, his wife’s horse. Choosing Ryan allows Romney to change all that in an instant.
But it’s a huge gamble, because in selecting Ryan, Romney is taking ownership of his budget, a package of highly detailed, deeply controversial policies—essentially privatizing Medicare, for instance—that are just the sort of thing that Romney has scrupulously avoided until now. The hoped-for scenario at Romney’s Boston headquarters is that Ryan will energize the conservative base and impress voters with his fluency and grasp of budget policies. The nightmare scenario is that the election will become a referendum on Paul Ryan’s budget, and voters—who complain about spending but feel entitled to government benefits—will recoil at the deep cuts Ryan (and by extension now, Romney) have proposed.
What’s fascinating about Ryan is that he is a kind of Rosetta Stone for national politics during Obama’s presidency. His budget is the embodiment of the Tea Party’s desire for steep cuts in government. It’s also, perversely, a big reason all the talk of deficit cutting and grand bargains hasn’t amounted to anything. The White House declined to embrace the recommendations of its own deficit-cutting commission (known as Bowles-Simpson) because they wanted Ryan to release his budget first—they believed it was so radical that it would inflict irreparable harm on his party. House Republicans passed that budget, but it went no further—until this morning.
Romney’s decision sets up an epic clash that true-believers in both parties have been longing for. Conservatives will get a national referendum on a set of ideas they’ve been pushing for a generation, and those ideas will be carried forward by the person (Ryan) best able to espouse them. Democrats will be thrilled to have the election become a referendum on radical changes in the social contract and not just the dire state of the economy. The choice of Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate doesn’t mean the election will become less bitter, petty, or antagonistic. But it is guaranteed to be a lot more interesting and important.