Some of the Republican faithful responded to Paul Ryan’s rousing acceptance speech for vice president last night as if it was the second coming of Ronald Reagan. And in a sense it was. Paul Ryan is the most Reaganesque political figure to reach the national stage since the Gipper himself. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin was even seen crying during it — and this is a guy who just survived 18 months of siege warfare stoically.
Indeed, Ryan’s speech made an understated bow towards Reagan’s political message with a signature passage. “The right that makes all the difference now is the right to choose our own leaders. You are entitled to the clearest possible choice because the time for choosing is drawing near,” Ryan told the Tampa convention crowd. There is no doubt that he was reaching back to Reagan’s classic political debut speech endorsing the 1964 candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Reagan burst onto the national scene with a speech he called “A Time for Choosing.” He told his audience back then, “The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.”
Like Reagan, Ryan’s speech combined soaring political rhetoric with a bold discussion of controversial ideas. Reagan floated Social Security privatization back in 1964; now a half century later Ryan said the nation had to take steps to reform Medicare in order to preserve its promises: “The nation needs this debate, we want this debate, we will win this debate.”
Reagan was able to appeal to young people despite the fact that he was the nation’s oldest elected president. Ryan at age 42 was able to make an overt appeal, pointing out that unemployed young people didn’t want to stare at their ceiling and gaze up at “fading Obama posters” in their childhood bedrooms, they want to “move out and get going with life.” He also joshed that Mitt Romney’s playlist of music selections would be familiar to anyone who had ever been in an elevator, while his own taste ranged from AC/ DC to Led Zeppelin. He then moved in for the kill, by noting that President Obama lacked any new ideas and was simply a tired figure whose plan had failed and was now only capable of airing attack ads. He compared that with the energy and vision he said the GOP ticket had to create a better future. The attempt to contrast between the old and the new couldn’t have been clearer.
Liberals are already throwing spitballs at Ryan. They recognize that his candidacy has energized Mitt Romney and the conservative base to run a campaign on bold ideas that calls on voters to make a fundamental choice about the country’s future. When Ryan made a pilgrimage to the Reagan Library in California last May to give a speech, Charles P. Pierce was quick to dismiss him as a “zombie-eyed granny-starver” who was now attempting to tap into “St. Ronnie’s sunnier side.” Those kinds of attacks come from people who are running scared. And Romney and Ryan now scare them.
Even hardened political reporters recognized that Ryan’s speech might indicate he could be a game-changer in this election. Lois Romano of Politico said: “I might actually say that people might vote for the vice president, because Romney’s not competing with him. Romney seems very comfortable in his own skin with this guy around. . . . He’s not worried about being overshadowed. He LIKES this.”
Now we’ll see how much the country likes the newly unveiled Romney-Ryan team. So far the signs are favorable.