Romney and Ryan Are Electric on the Campaign Trail. But How Long Can the Fun Last?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 13 2012 6:51 PM

The Ryan Boost

Romney and his new running mate are electric on the campaign trail, but how long can the fun last?

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan attend a campaign rally at the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina, August 12, 2012.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, traveling salesmen

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/GettyImages.

Bob White, Mitt Romney's partner at Bain Capital and close campaign confidante, gave Paul Ryan the ultimate compliment. "We would have hired him at Bain," he told a campaign colleague. The buoyant 42-year-old Ryan did look a bit like the junior partner in the duo's first sit-down interview with Bob Schieffer on 60 Minutes, matching Romney with a checked shirt and blazer. As Ryan kicked off his first two days of campaigning he was crisp, effective, and eager to show that the boss' confidence was not misplaced. "We know who we are. We know what we believe. Now let's go do it," said Ryan Sunday.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The line sounds a little like a motivational mantra from Ryan’s beloved P90X workout. The next 85 days are going to be an extreme workout for Ryan. (It will also be 85 days of Democrats calling him extreme.) The test for Ryan will be whether he has the stamina to retain that broad grin: his genial manner may be the best defense against the claims by Democrats that he wants to dismantle the social safety net and against the rigors of a campaign where his every move will be observed and analyzed.

The competition is well under way to define Paul Ryan, and it has now become a competition to define the Romney campaign as well. For the moment, at least, the Romney team has made the Ryan selection the narrative of the campaign. That means Ryan is no longer himself. Three forces are acting on this manikin: The Romney campaign, the Obama campaign, and the press. For two days the campaign gets to tell the story of its man, but now those other voices are starting to chime in. There's a lot of room for definition, if the Gallup poll is to be believed; nearly half of Republicans can't rate Ryan in a survey where six in 10 adults are not familiar enough with Ryan to offer an opinion of him.

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Mitt Romney made a "bold" choice and is "placing a bet" that ideas will win the election. That’s how the campaign is selling it. As Mark Halperin has expertly detailed, the Romney team produced a nearly flawless Ryan roll-out. The pitch is that these two men are a kind of Geek Squad for the nation: efficient problem solvers who love numbers and analysis. Romney has the executive skills and Ryan knows every inch of the budget, so together they will turn around the country. The pitch spans the generations: Romney, who seems like a man of the ’50s, linking up with the first man on a national ticket from Generation X.

Ryan wasn't the only beaming new guy on stage this weekend. The man at the top of the ticket seemed like a fresh presence too. "Ryan jacks him up," said a campaign adviser. Romney is looser on the stump, at one point leading a cheer of "Paul! Paul! Paul!" He's clearly pleased with his pick. 

So is the conservative base. The crowds at Romney/Ryan events were more raucous than they have been for Romney before. The party purists who love Ryan were going to vote against Obama anyway, but Ryan now moves those people to greater action before Election Day. Republican state offices are boasting of more volunteers. As of Sunday, the campaign reported more than $3 million in donations. The convention will look better on television with Republicans so enthusiastic and Romney has saved himself a good amount of grief in the future from conservatives who can now feel confident that he's put one of their kind on the ticket. 

All of this affection glosses over some rough spots in the narrative though, as the Obama camp and the press are beginning to point out. Ryan has none of the experience Romney has said is a requirement for the job. The campaign doesn't think voters will care about Ryan's lack of executive experience if he looks like a leader. (That's why Romney boasts so much about Ryan’s leadership in taking on Medicare reform.)

Campaign aides say Ryan’s ability to step into the job right away if necessary was the key reason he was picked. But when asked what element in his background gave him this instant and unassailable credential to be commander in chief, they cited his oversight authority of the defense budget. They will drop this soon, just as the McCain campaign dropped the claims that Sarah Palin gained military insight from her relationship with the anti-missile batteries stationed in Alaska. It just doesn’t wash. Fortunately, Barack Obama had arguably less commander-in-chief experience.

Ryan is also a longtime Washington insider. Romney spent the primaries campaigning against Washington. Now he argues that Ryan will offer the perfect complement to his executive experience because Ryan has legislative experience. But what kind of legislative experience does he have? Romney presents Ryan as a bipartisan deal-maker, but the record there is not strong. He does not have a long list of bills passed. The Huffington Post reports that he’s only authored a few bills that have passed during his near 14-year tenure in Congress, none of them towering bipartisan achievements. The Romney campaign provided two examples of bipartisanship: Ryan's collaboration with Sen. Ron Wyden on a Medicare white paper and his work with Congressman Chris Van Hollen on the Expedited Legislative Line-Item Veto and Rescissions Act. Wyden has called Romney's characterization of his collaboration with Ryan "talking nonsense" and Van Hollen issued a press release for the Obama campaign attacking Ryan. "The Romney-Ryan budget is great for the wealthiest Americans like Mitt Romney,” he said, "but at the expense of everyone and everything else.”

This is not the first time a top candidate has oversold his record of bipartisan accomplishment. Sen. Barack Obama made claims to bipartisan achievement that far outstripped his actual performance. His reliance on Tom Coburn was the equivalent of Paul Ryan's reliance on Ron Wyden. If Ryan is not the deal-maker Romney claims then he's not a solutions man. He's just an articulate spokesman who has won the respect, devotion, and loyalty of his team. 

Ryan’s ability to broker bipartisan compromise is particularly important given the ambition of the candidate’s ideas. How do you put something like his Medicare plan in place when the public is reluctant? A new survey conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 58 percent of Americans want Medicare left alone. How do you overcome this opposition? Not through assertion, but through bipartisan cooperation and explanation that reaches beyond your teammates. That's what Gingrich was talking about when he criticized the Ryan plan as “right wing social engineering.” The former speaker made this assertion based on his career of passing legislation with a Democratic president. Doing big, bold things requires skills of salesmanship that neither Romney nor Ryan have demonstrated. Yet Romney asserts that these skills are part of the Ryan package. 

Ultimately, selling the boldness of the Ryan plan falls on the candidate at the top of the ticket. If the Ryan pick was a bold vote for a campaign of specifics, Romney has not suddenly started talking at length about Medicare reform. That's not surprising. Who wants a PowerPoint presentation during the honeymoon? However, it does suggest that we should set our expectations low when it comes to specificity. The campaign still hopes that this election will be a referendum on Barack Obama. That means the focus will largely remain on Obama. But the campaign also knows that being the anti-Obama isn't enough to get Romney elected. Voters also want to know that Romney has a plan. Ryan helps Romney fulfill that requirement. 

Romney and Ryan want points for being leaders without having to get into the details of how they’d lead. The Romney team does not want the campaign to turn into a House Budget Committee mark-up where every idea Paul Ryan has had is debated. That outcome would be bad for three reasons. First, campaigns are no place to talk complicated policy, especially if you have the burden of explanation (as Romney and Ryan do on Medicare). Second, Romney is not as good a salesman of Ryan's views as Ryan is. Three, a deep policy discussion inevitably exposes daylight between Ryan and Romney, and that will give Democrats more opportunities.

To play offense in the Medicare battle, Ryan will travel to Florida later this week to attack President Obama for the Medicare provisions contained in the Affordable Care Act. This trip is a crucial debut. But Ryan's trip is about more than the debate over the future of the program. It's a test of the campaign’s theory of boldness. Part of what the Romney/Ryan ticket is arguing is that they should get leadership points for being bold about tough issues. It's an interesting theory. Usually politicians say they're bold, seek the credit but then never actually present anything that is bold for fear of terrifying people. That's what Bush did with Social Security reform and what Obama did with health care reform during their campaigns. (Remember, Obama wasn't for the individual mandate as a candidate.) Ryan is going to try campaigning on boldness when the boldness is actually down on paper. 

In his 60 Minutes interview, Ryan said that he wasn't going to destroy Medicare because his mother, who lives in the battleground state of Florida, benefits from the program. This was a prelude to another strategy we're likely to see more of in the coming weeks as Ryan deploys his biography. Romney campaign aides argue that Ryan will help Romney connect with middle-class voters the way Biden helps Obama do the same. This election is in large part about how a small number of swing voters feel about which campaign team is going to be on their side. Ryan's story of being a middle-class kid whose dad died when he was young is the Romney campaign's shield against the claim that the GOP ticket only cares about the wealthy. It’s a story Democrats can’t refute, but they’ll do their best to make it hard for him to tell it.

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