Why Romney Chose Ryan

Why Romney Chose Ryan

By Jeremy Lott - August 12, 2012

"Paul Ryan for vice president." Just a few years ago, those words were practically a thought crime. To suggest that Mitt Romney, that Massachusetts mush, would ever go for the controversial Wisconsin congressman would get you laughed out of the room.

Ryan is not a tea partyer. His approach to politics is too wonkish, too process driven and too gradualist for that. (For the more deeply steeped version, see the Rand Paul budget.) But Ryan enjoys considerable support from tea partyers, and their turnout makes his nomination possible.

There were other considerations that surely went into Romney's choice, announced Saturday, to give Ryan at a shot at his very on seat on Air Force Two. When I was writing my history of the vice presidency, The Warm Bucket Brigade, five reasons for vice presidential picks stood out. Veeps were chosen 1) to strike a deal; 2) to win a state; 3) to send a message; 4) to mess with opponents; and 5) to help govern.

Occasionally a nominee is chosen for one and only one of those reasons. Former Speaker of the House John Nance Garner helped usher Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation through Congress, but that's not why he was nominated. He ended up FDR's first vice president because of a deal struck to avoid a lengthy convention fight.

More often, the reasons for choosing a would-be VP are as messy as the constitutionally-gangly office itself. But if we apply the historical criteria one-by-one to Ryan, I submit that it reveals rather a lot about the decision making process of the guy at the top of the ticket.

Strike a deal: There were, so far as we can tell, no back room deals involved here. The Romney camp let it be known that it was vetting a number of candidates, disclosed those candidates, and chose from among them. That's how Romney wants us to see about how he leads, because that is how he himself sees his approach to governance.

Win a state: Wisconsin is winnable, along with nearby and demographically similar Iowa. Ryan hails from a district that Obama carried and campaign like crazy for the cheese-head vote.

On the related subject of demography, consider these four facts: a) Romney carried Catholic voters in most GOP primaries; b) a recent Pew poll showed Catholic bishops have managed to move the needle slightly with Catholics on the question of religious liberties; c) Team Romney has decided to make this a campaign issue; and d) Ryan is a serious and articulate Catholic.

Send a message: The obvious message here has Romney saying that he will work with or kowtow to conservatives, depending on your politics. There is also a less obvious but no less forceful message to be overheard.

Ryan was a moderately conservative Republican who went along with a lot of GOP legislation in the past that grew the government. Then he started looking at our future obligations, freaked out, and launched a one-man crusade to bring the budget back into long-term balance. He bucked his own party on this and eventually came out as the man who writes the Republican budgets.

Romney has praised much of Ryan's legislative work. By picking the Wisconsinite as his back-up, Romney is inviting us to see them as fellow travelers -- from generic Republicans to conservative reformers.

Mess with opponents: Ryan drives Democrats nuts because he puts forward ideas they think "extremist" or "crazy" but doesn't come across as extreme or crazy to voters in public. He seems earnest and polite and extremely competent. These are qualities that Romney encourages, but my guess is that the Great Democratic Freakout over Ryan also tickles his funny bone.

Help govern: This is typically the most neglected of all the criteria for picking a vice president, which is a scandal given how many of our veeps ended up in the Oval Office. But try this fun thought experiment: Close your eyes and picture Mitt Romney as president for two terms. Then: Repeat the same exercise with Paul Ryan in mind.

Finally, ask yourself, "Did Ryan set off any alarm bells that Romney did not?" 

Jeremy Lott is an editor for RealClearPolitics and author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.

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