January of 2012 seems so long ago. Jeremy Lin was still being mistaken for the Knicks’ ball boy. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker appeared to be on the political ropes. McKayla was still occasionally impressed. And GOP primary voters considered presidential candidate Mitt Romney to be a squishy flip-flopper.
Romney’s ideological malleability is well known. As governor of Massachusetts and then U.S. Senate candidate against Ted Kennedy, Romney took politically advantageous positions that seemed to belie his inner conservatism. Whenever he had an argument with himself, it seemed like the other guy always won. As a conservative friend of mine rationalized, “At least he was tricking the liberals, not us.”
But with Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, the era of questioning Romney’s conservative credentials feels like the Mesozoic Era. He delivered conservatism’s most attractive antidote to the Obama economy, which speaks volumes about Romney’s dedication to free-market solutions to the nation’s ills. This glorious flip inoculates him against any previous flops.
Ryan’s popularity was on display on Sunday in Waukesha, Wis., where thousands of GOP supporters filled a farm field to see their home-state congressman. Metal livestock fences meant to hold spectators in kept having to be moved back to accommodate more people. Supporters with signs and cameras climbed atop an empty hay wagon in order to catch a glimpse of the Romney-Ryan team.
Granted, getting these people to vote for Paul Ryan is like getting teenage girls to vote for Taylor Lautner. But in his official vice-presidential rollout, Ryan showed a previously hidden vulnerability, choking back tears as he addressed his home crowd.
Ryan’s speaking style is akin to that of a revivalist — he ebbs and flows between cheer and bombast. At one point, Ryan’s tone became almost a whisper. “Nearly one in six Americans are in poverty today,” he said quietly, finishing off a list of Obama’s economic failures. His tone invited the crowd to lean forward, as if he were about to tell them a secret meant only for them. “But you know what? We’re not going to take that anymore! We’re going to turn this thing around!” Immediately, attendees burst into applause.
It remains to be seen whether independents feel as strongly about Ryan as the Waukesha attendees do. Early polls suggest either voter indifference or a lack of information about Ryan. But if Romney does get a bump from the Ryan pick, it won’t necessarily be because of Ryan himself — it will be because of the new spotlight that the campaign itself receives.
With a host of new television cameras now pointed at his campaign, Romney has the chance to use that spotlight to re-introduce himself to the public. (See: the 60 Minutes interview last night.) In the end, people aren’t going to vote for Paul Ryan — they are going to vote for Mitt Romney. And given his fiery stump speech in Waukesha on Sunday, Romney seems ready to start throwing haymakers. (At one point, he scolded a heckler, perfectly seguing to a criticism of Obama’s “gutter” style politics.)
It appears that the rest of the campaign will be about Obama spreading misinformation about Ryan’s plan, then Romney trying to chase down those voters and convince them that it isn’t true. But the days of Romney having to worry about Republican voter apathy are in the past. With the Ryan pick, he has shown he is serious about fixing the economy and creating jobs. We will see if the public is serious about giving him a new look.
— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.