— Until just a few years ago, the “Jeopardy” answer to the question “Who is Paul Ryan?” would have been “A character on the daytime soap opera ‘As the World Turns’ who took his mother’s name because he hated his father so much.”
Until last week, the answer most of us had about the question of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was simple: He’s the fellow who wants to “reform” Medicare by forcing recipients to pay more for it.
When GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced Ryan was his choice for a running mate, it said a few things about the process and the priority Romney had for a running mate.
On paper, Ryan was probably no better than the fifth best pick for vice president, and it could be argued there are even more choices that would have added strength to the ballot.
What Romney clearly needs is what Bill Clinton needed in 1992 when he chose then Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee as his No. 2 – a candidate with congressional ties who would complement his own experience as a governor. What Romney did was break with traditional American political philosophy that members of the House of Representatives don’t merit consideration for presidential or vice presidential consideration and veteran, well-known career politicians are the natural picks.
Not since Gerald Ford has a member of the House gone on to be vice president, but Ford assumed that position almost 40 years ago when Spiro Agnew resigned and Richard Nixon was on the brink of impeachment. He was summarily defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976. Even powerful House Republicans like Indiana’s own Charlie Halleck were passed over as far back as the 1950s for more glorious running mate candidates such as Henry Cabot Lodge.
Bob Dole turned to House legend Jack Kemp in 1996, but that campaign also failed to produce a GOP winner.
What Ryan does for Romney is validate the generation of Republicans the party will need to replace an aging group of leaders. Ryan is 42, and while he might not win the race for Romney, he’s positioned to be in Washington for some time, and that gives Republicans another player with name recognition who will be around for some time as a keynote speaker.
The problem with Ryan is that he represents a virtual one-trick pony for Romney. Ryan’s siren song about the national debt is something we’ve heard before, but rolling back entitlements will not be easy or pretty — and probably not successful. The other problem with reforming Medicare and Social Security is that the debate Ryan and others are promoting assumes that personal income growth will not pick up the slack after decades of lag, which has severely hamstrung the sustainability of the programs.
At a chamber of commerce function last week in Delphi, Rep. Todd Rokita made a pitch for reform and said it’s time to have a serious discussion about the cost of government and how the country will deal with it. But a discussion and a solution are not the same thing, and there appears to be none of the latter on the horizon.
In reality, Romney may eventually regret he didn’t choose candidates who probably could have done more damage to the Obama-Biden ticket.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was a natural choice and was mentioned more than any hopeful. He’s a first-term senator and would have given the GOP some hope of capturing Hispanic votes in two states the party really needs — Florida and Texas. Romney is so far down in the polls when it comes to Hispanic voters, he might have realized more benefit from energizing the traditional Republican base of white males. Obama has had a wide lead among women voters, Hispanic voters and African-American voters since the start of the campaign.
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio also was a natural choice. Both parties covet Ohio almost more than any other state because it’s usually in play and it has a significant Electoral College total. Portman’s experience in Washington might have been helpful, but he wasn’t a particularly well-known political name, and that could have been an asset for Romney.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out early in the GOP primary process, and that signaled the possibility that Romney would tab him as a running mate. But Pawlenty polled so surprisingly weakly during the primary season that his stock probably fell before Romney even won the necessary states to assure his nomination.
Then there’s former Ambassador Jon Huntsman. He might have been the most attractive candidate of all because he had Washington experience and had served as governor of Utah. But if Huntsman had anything working against him, it was the fact that he was probably too much like Romney — a wealthy Mormon whose strongest political base was in Utah, a state Romney already can claim.
Another possible candidate who would have been strong for the base is Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond of Missouri. Like Ohio, Missouri is a swing state. Bond’s career in Washington and his Midwest roots likely would have served to moderate the ticket, but Romney chose to side with the leftover tea party momentum of 2008 and 2010.
Let’s call it going vogue in 2012 instead of going rogue like Sarah Palin did in 2008.
• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at firstname.lastname@example.org.