The man who solved Mitt Romney’s problems with conservative voters has spent his post-collegiate life in Washington, D.C. political jobs. He voted for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program. He voted for the 2009 auto bailout. He voted for Medicare Part D, and has defended it robustly ever since.
And yet Rep. Paul Ryan eases or erases the doubts conservatives had about Mitt Romney. There is near-total agreement, for once, between the conservative media (especially the Murdoch-owned archipelego of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal) and the conservative base. At the same time that Bill Kristol was talking up Ryan, the grassroots Republican activist Ali Akbar was trying to get people to tweet #GiveUsRyan. “I’d like to think Kristol did the heavy lifting,” he says, “and a few of us did what we could to let the camp know that we'd be willing to go the extra mile if Ryan was/is selected.”
Why does Ryan get a pass for his early-career spending apostasy? (Like I said, the “early career” ends in early 2009.) Because he’s a good politician. He told Ryan Lizza last month that the Dennis Hastert-era GOP majority made him “miserable,” and other statements like that have convinced conservatives that he was only playing for the team. Sarah Palin came out of the GOP's evangelical wing, the wing that economic elites just sort of tolerate because they need to craft a majority. Paul Ryan comes out of the green eyeshade, business-friendly economic conservative wing of the party. Palin gets invited to Tea Party Express events. He gets invited to Koch summits. (Of course, in my inbox right now is a Ryan endorsement from the Tea Party Express.)
The point of those Republican compromises was to create the space for entitlement reform, which failed in 2005, when George W. Bush (and Ryan) tried to privatize Social Security. Not only has Ryan moved on entitlement reform (minus Social Security – he learned his lesson!), he did it in a thrilling way. “Mr. Ryan can make his case in a reasonable and unthreatening way,” wrote Wall Street Journal editors last week, in the piece that kicked off the final wave of Ryan hype. “He doesn't get mad, or at least he doesn't show it. Like Reagan, he has a basic cheerfulness and Midwestern equanimity.”
That confidence was built on Ryan’s record, sure, but the candidate’s charisma was even more important. Barack Obama grew his national, progressive following with some pleasant but detail-poor speeches about American diversity, then with speeches that called 2005 Republican entitlement reform ideas “social Darwinism.” He rarely had to defend himself in debates.
Ryan, however, started to build his current following by showing up and out-talking Democrats. In February 2010, Ryan was picked as one of the GOP’s avatars at the president’s “health care summit” at Blair House. He said that health care spending was “driving us off of a fiscal cliff,” that Medicare was worth “$38 trillion in empty promises,” and then he challenged the math behind the president’s bill. It was a brilliant use of a format weighted against Ryan. Less than a year later, he’d give the Republican response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union, another thankless task. Many times since then, Ryan has bracketed Obama’s policy speeches by giving his own speeches that portray Republicans as people who’ve made hard choices, and Obama as a lying, incompetent showboater.
One reason why this worked: Ryan constantly framed his plans as deficit reduction. He didn’t need to frame the president’s plans, really, because they obviously weren’t reducing the deficit. (Gimmicks like the 2010 extension of Bush tax rates, which Republicans wanted, helped prove their point.) The political press awards merit badges to anyone who talks about deficit reduction – especially if they’re clearly taking risks. In the spring of 2011, when Democrats ran against Ryan’s Medicare “premium support” plan and won a New York special election, what the media noticed was that Ryan didn’t budge. There was no House member scaredy-cat scramble away from the Ryan plan. Ryan used the next congressional recess to re-sell the plan, with charts and torrents of numbers, in Wisconsin town halls. And when Republicans won the next House special election, in Anthony Weiner’s seat, Ryan looked both bold and right.
“We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go,” said Grover Norquist at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget.” It didn’t matter who was led the GOP’s ticket, because “we just need a president to sign this stuff.” And it won’t matter that Vice President Ryan would not be Budget Chairman Ryan. The congressman would behind an incredibly loyal caucus, with Republicans like Rep. Trey Gowdy, who admit they had asked Ryan to run for president himself and save the party (implicitly, from a weak Romney).
The Ryan tone was sort of tough to distinguish in today’s launch event. I think that’s because Ryan’s plan had already been endorsed by Romney, as had Ryan’s characterization of Obama. “We will return work to welfare,” said Romney, even though it’s not really true that the new HHS welfare rules will let states take work out of welfare. But the over-arching argument is that Obama enriches people who work at the expense of people who donate, financed by borrowing. In his own short remarks, Ryan said that Obama’s Democrats were “more about the next election than the next generation.” When you start from that position, you start to pre-empt an argument about taxes – helpful, because Ryan’s flatter tax rates are based on the low rates and revenue return of the current Bush-era code. How you pay for government is secondary to what you’re paying for. If you want to pay for the current welfare state, you’re a fool, because no tax rates can support that state.
By picking Ryan, Romney acknowledged that he can’t force the election to be a pure referendum on Barack Obama’s bad economy. It’s a choice between a state with more benefits and top-down wealth redistribution, and a state with leaner benefits and tax rates that favor the “makers” over the “takers,” to crib Ayn Rand. And Republicans have absolute confidence that the second choice is already winning, because Paul Ryan made it so.