Wonk on a White Horse

by Jonah Goldberg

If Paul Ryan got in the race, he would be my first choice for president. But, as I suggest in my column today, I don’t think that’s the only reason he should get in the game. The NY-26 race will be wildly over-interpreted by the press and the Democrats as a death-blow to Ryan and the GOP budget. But that interpretation may well have a self-fulfilling aspect to it. You can be sure that the Democrats will only intensify their MediScare tactics.

If you think that’s a huge problem, Ryan getting in the race might be the best possible option. Because by getting in, Ryan would allow the rest of the field to differentiate themselves from Ryan and the House budget. Most of the contenders would have to differentiate themselves from Ryan while also coming up with more serious entitlement-reform plans of their own than they might otherwise.

Let’s assume Ryan gets in and loses and, say, Tim Pawlenty wins the nomination. After “pushing off” from Ryan in the primaries, Pawlenty would be far better situated to tell Obama in the general, “Look, you’re running against Paul Ryan. He’s not on this stage. I am. I beat Paul Ryan. Deal with me and my ideas.”

In many ways, if Ryan doesn’t run we’ll have a similar problem to the one we had in 2008. There was no stand-in for Bush in the primaries, so there was nobody the candidates could differentiate themselves from in order to be the “not-Bush” or “anti-Bush” candidate. By the time McCain won the nomination, Obama could claim that electing McCain would amount to a third Bush administration. Without Ryan, the man of the moment, in the race, and without an obvious stand-in for him, the Republicans will be saddled with the Ryan plan whether they endorse it or not. And that means Obama will be able to run against a demonically caricatured Ryan instead of the actual nominee.

Now, I’d like to think that there are bigger advantages to Ryan getting in than that. I think he could go all the way. I think he’s as close as we’ll ever get to an “Obama” candidate this year — a charismatic guy who taps into something in the zeitgeist and can articulate it in a compelling way. He’s certainly the only guy out there who can sell the Path to Prosperity. I’d like to think that if he got in the race, he’d win the primary and then take the fight to Obama. But that’s all hypothetical at this point. We’ll never know for sure if he doesn’t throw his hat in.

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