Saturday, August 11, 2012

By going with Paul Ryan for VP, Romney gambles on a Goldwater candidacy

Ryan Lizza's recent profile of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan in the New Yorker was subtitled "How Paul Ryan captured the G.O.P.". That assessment now looks prescient as well as perceptive. If you haven't been paying close attention to Paul Ryan's career and ideas, this would be a good time to catch up, and Lizza's profile would be one good place to start.

=> The neo-conservative writer David Frum, who has been dismayed by the increasing turn toward hard-right extremism and demagogic know-nothingism in Republican politics, has clung to Romney as representing the Last Chance for a viable and acceptable alternative to Obama—mostly on the basis of hoping that Romney doesn't really mean all the things he's been saying in 2011 and 2012, but has merely been pandering to the so-called Republican "base". In November 2011, discussing his "indecisive" feelings about the Republican primary field, Frum put it this way:
So that leaves us with the two governors, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Romney has the better record as an administrator. I still think that his Massachusetts health-care plan showed creative leadership on an important problem — even if he himself now declines to defend his own accomplishment.

Romney has spoken well and firmly about the need to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He has a keen understanding of the debt and financial problems of the U.S. and Europe. [JW:  ????]

Yet it’s also true that Romney has reversed so many of his positions so abruptly that voting for him is like taking a random walk. We can be sure that a Romney White House will be well-run. But what will it do? That’s anybody’s guess.

Huntsman, by contrast, has bravely challenged the Republican party’s strident, uncompromising radical style. I also like Huntsman’s willingness to re-examine the Afghanistan commitment and to focus more on the economic challenge from China. On the other hand, Huntsman’s economic platform is pure Wall Street Journal editorial page: Big tax cuts for the highest-income earners, radical cuts in retirement benefits for people now under 55. The more supple Romney has carefully avoided any such radical commitment.

The Washington, D.C., primary is set for April 3. I’ll probably cast a vote that day for Huntsman, if only to show support for a brave and independent-minded candidate — and in hope that a strong Huntsman showing will be interpreted as a call for a more modern and inclusive Republican party.

If Mitt Romney emerges as the ultimate nominee, I’ll place my hope that the Romney who enters the Oval Office will be the innovative, solutions-oriented Romney 1.0 — and not the placate-every-GOP-interest-group Romney 3.0 we’ve seen on the 2011 campaign trail.
Any other nominee would gravely test my commitment to the political party I’ve supported since I entered the United States as a college student in the fall of 1978.
Well, Romney became the nominee.  But now Romney has chosen as his running mate the candidate par excellence of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Paul Ryan. In doing so he's made precisely the kind of "radical commitment" Frum congratulated him for avoiding, by tying himself irrevocably to the highly radical Ryan Budget—which not only seeks to dismantle Medicare (for everyone born after 1956) but has also been condemned as unjust and morally unacceptable by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, no less, because of its callous disregard for the poor and vulnerable. Barring some very unexpected developments, the radically free-market-fundamentalist and pro-plutocratic agenda embodied in the Ryan Budget, with combines unreconstructed pre-Keynesian economic ideology with a comprehensive assault on the public household and on the remaining legacies of the New Deal, will almost certainly be a central focus of the partisan battle between now and the November election.

=> Frum's reaction gets to the heart of the matter, I think:
Mitt Romney is a famously cautious man, very alert to downside risks. Yet by selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate (assuming the late-night reports are indeed correct) Romney has taken an awesome ideological gamble. This election—which Romney once intended to make a referendum on Obama's record—will now become a referendum on Paul Ryan's bold budget ideas.
That's almost certainly right.
Why would Romney make such a choice and take such a risk?
Why indeed? Frum runs through and considers several possibilities, which basically fall into two categories: either Romney himself "has been genuinely radicalized since 2008", or he has succumbed to pressures from the Republican right, including the demands of his donors and the desires of the so-called Republican "base". (Or maybe both.)
When I air skepticism about this pick, I get push-back from overjoyed conservatives. On Ryan's behalf, it must be said: he's intelligent, serious-minded, and refreshingly sincere. In character, Paul Ryan is everything one would want in a national political leader.
I feel compelled to register my disagreement on that point. As far as I'm concerned, Ryan is a narrowly dogmatic, dangerously simplistic, and wildly misguided ideologue (a good example of what the 19th-century conservative historian Jacob Burckhardt described as "terrible simplifiers" in politics). He is no doubt less disgusting as a person than Newt Gingrich, and he's not a clown like Herman Cain, a sincere theocratic bigot like Rick Santorum, or a neo-McCarthyite loon like Michele Bachmann (to mention just some of the contenders for this year's Republican presidential nomination). But those are easy bars to clear. Overall, in my (possibly fallible) opinion, Ryan epitomizes a whole range of beliefs, inclinations, and character traits that one should not want to see in a national political leader.

But be that as it may ... this assessment strikes me as on-target.
Yet it's also true that Ryan has been pushed forward by people who do not much like or respect Mitt Romney, precisely with a view to constraining and controlling a Romney presidency. By acceding to that pressure—for whichever of the five reasons above, or for some sixth or seventh reason—Romney has transformed a campaign about jobs and growth into a campaign about entitlements and Medicare. Romney will now have to spend the next months explaining how and why shrinking Medicare after 2023 will create prosperity in 2013. Economic conditions are so tough—the Obama reelection proposition is so weak—that Romney may win anyway. But wow, the job just got harder.
I certainly hope so. My own guess is that running on this platform will turn out to be a loser for the Republicans in November—once again, barring unpredictable developments that could range from Democratic incompetence to the side-effects of a deepening European economic crisis. In a more reasonable world, one could even imagine this gamble leading to another Goldwater-style landslide defeat, though in the actual world I'm not expecting that (and we have to remember that the movement behind Goldwater eventually captured the GOP and then the country).  But if the Republicans run on this platform and win, the consequences will be disastrous for all of us. At least we're getting what one Goldwater campaign slogan promised in 1964: "A choice, not an echo." Stay tuned.

—Jeff Weintraub