Choosing the Best Vice President, Not the Best Co-Campaigner

At last the general election contest is truly underway.  We have two full tickets, the conventions are drawing near, and we’re rounding mid-August and headed for September.  Let the vilification of Mitt Romney’s choice for Vice President begin.

Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan is a confident and mature choice for several reasons.  Romney could have gone for a more charismatic figure, and one who is practically custom designed to appeal to a certain demographic and lock down a must-win state, like Marco Rubio.  Or he could have gone for a more electrifying figure, someone who would have dramatically shaken up the scene, like Chris Christie.  He chose neither.  He decided that he did not need a game-changer, and he did not need someone who would sew up Florida or Ohio.

Judging by this decision, and by the Obama administration’s flailing defenses of the Joe Soptic ads, Romney’s internal polling and Obama’s internal polling must be showing Romney in a pretty strong position.

Yet this was not an entirely safe choice, either.  Pawlenty or Portman would have been safer.  Ryan is caricatured as a kind of amoral Ayn Rand acolyte, a purveyor of unnecessarily draconian budgetary measures that would pull the rug out from under the poor and benefit the wealthy and their corporations.  This choice will play into the knock on Romney, that he’s for a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

Yet Romney chose him anyway.  Why?  I haven’t heard from Romney campaign insiders, but I would guess there were three primary reasons:

1.  There was no one better than Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio to animate the GOP grass roots.  Rubio is a Tea Party darling, but Paul Ryan is more than that; on economic matters, the matters that count the most for the Tea Party as well as for Americans generally right now, Ryan is the intellectual leader of the conservative movement.  No one questions whether Ryan is a “true conservative.”  He’s conservative through and through, from economic to social matters.  Ryan has never made social issues his specialty, but he’s a solidly pro-life Catholic, and having a Catholic on the ticket will help Romney attract Catholics and evangelicals concerned about abortion and religious liberties.  It’s tough for Romney to speak to religious liberty.  It will not be tough for Ryan to do so.

2.  There is no one better equipped than Paul Ryan to indict the Obama administration for its flagrant mismanagement of the federal budget.  The choice of Paul Ryan speaks volumes for Romney’s strategy for the remainder of the election: the economy, the economy, the economy.  I side with those who would emphasize that Romney must also speak to other issues.  But the main thrust of Romney’s argument will be that Barack Obama took an economy that was in a ditch and promptly drove it off a cliff.  Ryan makes that argument more powerfully — with greater command of the details and a better understanding of economic conservative principles — than anyone.

He can also articulate the moral case for economic conservatism — not only how stark budgetary realities require deep cuts in spending and entitlement reform, but (a) how social and economic conservatism are intertwined, building a thriving economy on top of strong family and community foundations, and (b) how a smaller government and freer market (along with the truly necessary social safety nets) better serves all Americans, including the poor.

3.  There is no one among the potential VP picks better equipped for governing than Paul Ryan.  George W. Bush did not choose Dick Cheney because he was a brilliant campaigner; he was not.  He chose Dick Cheney because he believed that Cheney would help him govern well.  Similarly, Mitt Romney has an eye not only toward winning the power of the presidency, but toward leveraging that power to put American back on a sound financial footing.

It always frustrates me when people speak of the calculus of the VP pick solely in terms of electability.  The choice of a Vice President ought to be about more than winning.  It ought to be about putting together the best possible team for the good of the country.  It ought to be less about doing yourself a favor and more about doing right by the country.  With Romney’s experience in business and the governor’s office, and Ryan’s experience in legislation and budget, they do make a compelling “Comeback Team” for America as it weathers some of the worst economic storms in generations.

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  • Good analysis, although Rob Portman’s background at OMB and as trade rep would have him in good stead as a hands-on VP a bit more than Ryan. However, since Ryan is already going to be the bogey-man of the left, it makes some gutsy sense to boogie with the bogey man and let a winsome spokesman for deficit reduction make the case.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I agree that Portman would have been helpful as well as an engaged VP.

  • John Haas

    “No one questions whether Ryan is a “true conservative.” He’s conservative through and through, from economic to social matters.”

    I wouldn’t say “no one.” The libertarian-leaning folk I’m hearing from have always considered him something of an opportunist, voting for every big-$$$ item his party proposed, and then excusing himself by insisting that this was during his “early phase” (a phase that lasted until 2009, btw). They also find him a conventional, big spending, quick-to-intervene, invade first and plan later or not at all, neoconservative on foreign policy–and they would insist “neo-conservative” is just another name for “liberal.”

    On social matters, he’s certainly not peculiarly Catholic either–if you’ve read the Church’s social teaching. He will appeal to the Acton Institute types, of course. But how many of them are there?

    • Bobby B.

      Not really sure what a “libertarian leaner” is. Either we grant Ryan an “early phase” explanation for his votes or else we’ll have to spend endless purgatorial hours watching YouTubes of President Obama dancing the policy shuffle.

      • John Haas

        Grant what you wish. My point was only to say there’s less consensus on his “true conservatism” than that “no one questions” might imply. Check Ron Paul’s comments, eg.

        • Bobby B.

          If that was your only point, John, then just stick to it.

          Do YOU disagree with Timothy’s statement that Ryan is a “conservative through and through, from economic to social matters”?

          Your phrase “peculiarly Catholic” seems a bit odd to me. Care to explain?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m with William Saletan on this one. I’m sure that TARP was not the best-designed piece of legislation. Under the dire circumstances at the time, however, I think it was the right vote. Ryan may not be able to tout it too much, but in a fully rational world he would be able to tout that vote as a marker of sanity, a marker that he’s not the extremist the Obama administration makes him out to be. I probably need to write a full length post on this sometime, since I know many conservatives disagree with me. But I think Bush gets the lion’s share of the credit for pulling the economy away from the precipice. I was for TARP — a necessary but painful measure — but against the “stimulus” plan, which I think was largely ineffective and worsened our long-term outlook.

  • Bob Wiley

    Romney’s choice of Ryan will mean that the official Obama campaign will probably spend less time and money on last-minute on illiberal ads on Romney’s Mormonism. They’ll have to place greater focus on Ryan’s budget proposals. The voters will benefit. A campaign based a bit more on substance than character assassination.

    • Oh, there’ll be plenty of character assassination. No matter who’s running. We Americans respond well to that sort of thing, so it is not likely to stop.

  • Catholic

    Ryan is actually, with his firm positions on spending, fully following Catholic Social Doctrine.