In choosing Ryan, Romney, in effect, both acknowledged and granted the validity of that latter set of criticisms. As my colleague Jonathan Chait and others have written, Ryan has become the de facto ideological and intellectual leader of the contemporary GOP. His agenda of turning Medicare into a voucher program, bloc-granting and taking the meat axe to Medicaid, drastically cutting spending on virtually every other government program (except defense, natch), and, yes, privatizing Social Security has been called many things, from courageous and bold (by countless conservatives) to “thinly veiled Social Darwinism” (by Obama) and “right-wing social engineering” (by Newt Gingrich). What you cannot call it is vague or vacuous or mealy-mouthed — all words that have been attached to the man at the top of the ticket.
So this was not a safe or conventional pick — not a pick motivated by winning a state (as Portman would have partly been regarding Ohio or Marco Rubio would have partly been regarding Florida). This was a pick about ideas, about policies, about core convictions. But it was also a pick driven by political weakness. All along, Team Romney’s bedrock strategy has been to make the 2012 election a clean referendum on Obama’s economic management and leadership, an election about unemployment, growth, and wages. In elevating Ryan, what Team Romney has done is execute a sharp U-turn, embracing the theory that 2012 will not be a pure referendum but a choice election, and one in which the two sides’ contrasting approaches to the deficit, debt, entitlements, and taxes will take center stage. And while this is surely not a Hail Mary pass on the order of John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin, it is almost as much, as some Romneyites admit, an attempt to (pardon the expression) change the game.
All of which helps explain why the Obamans are grinning madly. It’s not simply that they, too, see the pick as an admission by Team Romney that its strategy was failing.
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