Governor Romney has made an inspired choice. Paul Ryan will make an excellent running mate and, if elected, vice president. What is most gratifying about the decision is, however, what it says about Romney himself.
Romney could have decided to run a vague and vacuous campaign based on the idea that the public would default to the out party in a bad economy. By selecting Ryan, he has ensured that the campaign will instead to a significant degree be about a conservative governing agenda.
Romney could have rested his argument against Obama on the poor economic results of his time in office. Paul Ryan is the Republican who has made the most pointed critique of the philosophy that underlies Obama’s economic policies: the notion that government can direct resources toward rising industries. Solyndra is not just a scandal, Ryan notes: It is the kind of crony-capitalist fiasco to which Obama’s view inevitably leads.
Romney could have gone into a defensive crouch about entitlements, changing the subject whenever Democrats brought it up. With Ryan on the ticket, he will have to forthrightly defend the plan to put Medicare on a sound financial footing — and he had to know that while making his decision.
Romney could have played down the Obamacare question. His own record on health care as governor makes it a somewhat awkward issue; Republicans have been divided about how to replace the legislation and even whether to advance a replacement; getting repeal through Congress would consume much of the capital of a Republican president’s first year. Romney has nonetheless selected as his running mate the Republican most identified with replacing Obamacare with a free-market alternative.
Romney could have kept his options open for the presidency. Many candidates before him have run in order to be someone rather than to do something, and the many virtues his own career has demonstrated have not included deep philosophical conviction. Ryan would never have agreed to join a ticket that was not serious about enacting and implementing conservative policies, and Romney must have known that he was committing to precisely that by picking him.
While Ryan has a national reputation as a budget cutter, he is a full-spectrum conservative. One strength he brings to the ticket is a grounding in the social teaching of the Catholic Church, to which he belongs, and a willingness to engage with those who thoughtlessly equate this teaching with support for an ever-expanding welfare state. These traits could have more than parochial interest this year, because a disproportionate number of Catholic voters are up for grabs.
Conservatives, and not just the Romney campaign and the Republican apparatus, will have to stand ready to fight back against the distortions that are sure to come — indeed, have already begun. Democrats will say that Romney-Ryan is a ticket committed to “dismantling” Medicare (by ensuring its solvency); that it would leave the poor to fend for themselves (by extending the successful principles of welfare reform); that their only interest is to comfort the rich (whose tax breaks they wish to pare back). These are debates worth winning, and they can be won.
The first question any vice-presidential pick must answer is whether he is ready to become president should disaster strike. Fiscal disaster is striking. A mark of statesmanship is to face mathematical reality and make hard choices in its light. Romney has chosen a running mate who is more presidential than the incumbent.