Perhaps Romney can take a vision graft from Ryan. He'll have to, because voters won't be lured by Ryan's ideas unless the man at the top of the ticket makes the case for them. But for all of the talk of a new emphasis on policy specifics, this is still going to be a campaign deeply connected to American values. When Ryan spoke on Saturday, he talked about the threat Obama poses to the American way of life. Underneath every policy debate will be the argument that when tough choices have to be made about the federal government, you're going to want candidates who share your values when they're doing the awful math of scarcity.
The Romney choice represents a significant adaptation from the plan that the campaign had been running before, which relied mostly on keeping the campaign focused on Barack Obama's record. By picking Ryan, who comes with a very detailed set of ideas and proposals, Romney has embraced the view that he needs to run a campaign that offers bright alternatives to Obama's vision. Even the Romney bus sends this message. It has been redesigned on the outside to read "The Romney Plan."
Every president needs to know how to stick to a plan against all advice to the contrary, but perhaps even more important is that they know when to adapt. Romney has been slipping in the polls against Obama. The Real Clear Politics average has him down four points. Voters have a more unfavorable view of him than they do a favorable one, according to a variety of polls. By picking Ryan, Romney has a chance to redefine himself in a way that might relaunch the brand. But unlike the Sarah Palin pick or Bob Dole's pick of Jack Kemp, this is not an odd couple. It is a rebranding that is mostly consistent with Romney's general approach.
There is one big way in which Ryan is not in the Romney mold: He lacks executive experience. Romney has repeatedly said this shortcoming makes politicians from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama to Rick Santorum unqualified for office. It was the talking point for those who have endorsed Romney, particularly N.J. Gov. Chris Christie: “Let’s be very leery, very wary of sending another member of Congress to the White House. Now, see, members of Congress, they can be OK, but they don’t know the first thing most of the time about using executive authority. They don’t know the first thing about getting things done.” Ryan also has no real business experience, a quality that Romney has said should be a qualification for office.
Romney is running an attribute campaign: His argument is that his skills and experience are particularly suited to the White House. Given that, it's no small thing to then throw away the key attribute when selecting your vice president.
In picking a running mate, Romney has said the first criteria is that he needs to be able to step into the job. Either he doesn't mean that or his previous emphasis on the necessity of executive experience was meaningless. It is a time-honored tradition to revise the criteria you set before you picked your vice president to fit the person you actually do pick. It makes the sale harder, though, for a candidate like Romney who has a reputation for ideological malleability.
To get around this, the Romney campaign has sold Ryan as the Washington counterpoint to Romney's leadership skills. "I believe my record of getting things done in Congress will be a very helpful complement to Gov. Romney’s executive and private sector success outside Washington," Ryan said at the announcement. This is a new criteria for Romney's vice presidential pick, but it's also one that will require some scrutiny. Is Ryan really the bipartisan deal-maker he claims? He didn’t sign on to the Simpson-Bowles, even though a strong conservative like Sen. Tom Coburn was able to in the name of bipartisanship. And he has not been a willing partner with Obama, despite Obama's early view that he could work with Ryan. Liberals cite Obama's appreciation for Ryan as one of his foolish early moves: mistaking an ideologue for someone who actually wanted to exchange ideas.
Romney will now test the proposition at the heart of all of the good advice he was getting from conservatives: Whether specificity kills or whether the country is really hungering for a detailed plan. Until this point, Romney has been almost allergic to specifics. Now he will have to give nuanced, precise, and powerful answers. He's going to have to flip a switch, which might not be that easy given how hyper-careful he has been to this point. His aides have long said that Romney loves policy details. He'll get a chance to prove it now.