I just watched Jon Stewart’s first post-VP-announcement episode and I think it shows what a great choice Paul Ryan was. Stewart, a liberal, went pretty easy on Paul in general, but one part really delighted me. Stewart quoted a liberal pundit who said that Ryan was “Sarah Palin with substance and a paper trail,” and Stewart mocked that assertion with an almost Aristotelian display of what “definition” is: He said that that comment is like saying something is just like a bicycle, only it has no wheels and no handlebar. You can’t say one thing is essentially like another and at the same time stipulate that its essence is different; in this case, said Stewart, the pundit was saying Ryan was just like Palin, except in the essence of what makes Palin Palin.
I’m not interested here in relitigating the pros and cons of Palin. She has many ferocious fans and many angry detractors, and they are all free to fight it out on that issue until the end of time as far as I’m concerned. What I’m getting at here is something different: what it says about Paul Ryan that you have even a prominent liberal media figure saying he’s no Palin. I am searching for one word that would summarize what that means . . . Oh, yeah.
All the talk, over the last few months, about “boring white guys who won’t hurt the ticket” was to get expectations low: Romney would choose somebody chiefly on the basis of his or her qualifications for the presidency, so people shouldn’t get their hopes up that there would be a Palin-style infusion of dynamism in the last two months of the campaign. (This is something that many anti-Palin folks choose to forget: She had her problems, which we all know about, but in the immediate aftermath of her nomination she was a huge plus for the 2008 ticket. Conservatives who were worried or depressed about McCain were deeply energized, and independents liked her feisty, rebellious personality. The notion that Palin cost McCain the election is one of the many enduring myths about 2008; it’s right up there with “if only McCain had not been such a nice guy, if only he had viciously attacked Obama on Jeremiah Wright/Bill Ayers/birtherism/what-have-you, he could have won.”)
That low bar — “boring-but-competent veep” — having been established, Romney more than cleared it by finding someone who is not just serious and competent, but devoted to conservative principles and excited about conservative ideas. Paul Ryan can energize the base because they know that he is not just conservative “in some sense” — on paper, in his rhetoric — but is conservative tout court: He “gets” conservatism from the inside. (Remember, Bob Dole had a conservative voting record. Who cared? Conservatives knew he wasn’t one of them, and no amount of well-written speechifying could change that.)
In retrospect, three days later, Paul Ryan seems like the obvious choice. But this took imagination on Romney’s part, and the strategic way he prepared the ground for this selection suggests something about Romney one doesn’t often hear: The man may, after all, be good at politics.