Indeed, immediately after the Walker victory, Romney called the new GOP hero and issued a tough-talking (for him) statement: “Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back—and prevail—against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses. Tonight voters said ‘no’ to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and ‘yes’ to fiscal responsibility and a new direction. I look forward to working with Governor Walker to help build a better, brighter future for all Americans.”
Romney has already embraced the other Wisconsin GOP hero, Paul Ryan, and Ryan approved of Romney’s Medicare reform proposal during the primaries. Romney campaigned with Ryan during his Wisconsin battle against Rick Santorum, and Tuesday Ryan held an event in North Carolina for Romney. This might have been a vice presidential try-out or it might just have been a way to use a party superstar to raise some dollars.
But if the moral of the Wisconsin Republican story is that politicians who run with gusto on conservative ideas can win the day, then Romney needs to pick it up a notch. His embrace of the specifics of Ryan's plan has been spotty at best. When one of his advisers was asked about it this past Sunday, he said that Romney supported Ryan but had his own plan. True enough, but Romney’s own plan is not nearly as robust and detailed as Ryan’s blueprint. It is the expectation among Republicans like Norquist and in Congress that Romney’s job as president will be to simply sign the Ryan budget. If that's true, and the Wisconsin lesson is that boldness pays off, then Romney should promise to sign it on his first day in office.
That would be extraordinary, because the political risk calculation is more complicated than the hero storyline suggests. Walker’s race was brutal and required a massive resource advantage. Ryan’s budget plan, while not the liability Democrats initially predicted, is credited with helping Democrats win a Republican seat in New York’s 26th district. No matter how exhilarating the Wisconsin narrative may be, Romney also knows details kill. And it's clear that President Obama is ready to pounce. He and Vice President Biden have been trying for months to wrap Romney in the Ryan plan.
The sweet spot for Romney is to associate himself with the Ryan plan in general but never get pinned down on the specifics. In 2010, House Speaker John Boehner did not include the full Ryan plan in his pitch to voters called "Pledge to America,” because he knew that specificity would give Democrats something to attack. Ryan knows this, too. That's why Ryan talks about closing tax loopholes but doesn't pick which ones. (There are lists.) When Romney was overheard by reporters at a fundraiser mentioning a few of the puny tax loopholes he'd think about snipping, his campaign said he was merely repeating some ideas he’d heard.
Romney is still making his transition from primary to general election candidate. The boldest thing he has done so far as Obama’s opponent is visit an inner-city Philadelphia school. There he met with some resistance to his conservative ideas. Will he run on a bold set of ideas of the kind championed by the Wisconsin duo now that he is not trying to court GOP voters alone? It remains to be seen. If he does, he’ll know the best state in which to make his stand.