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When Mitt Met Paul: "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change"

Posted: 08/22/2012 10:17 pm

Given the way Mitt Romney gushed when he introduced Paul Ryan as his VP pick, you'd think he'd not just found his running mate, but his soul mate as well. And what, exactly, did Romney see in Ryan that made him realize he was The One? "Paul Ryan is a leader," Romney said at a rally in Norfolk, Virginia. "His leadership begins with character and values." And also he is "a person of great steadiness, whose integrity is unquestioned and whose word is good." And also "a man of tremendous character." Indeed, Romney said he doesn't "know of anyone who doesn't respect his character and judgment."

So Romney liked Ryan for his "leadership," his "values," his "steadiness," and his "firm principles." But then, right after Ryan was picked, the Romney campaign immediately made sure that Ryan abandoned each one of those qualities. In other words, you fall in love with that special someone for his independence and fiery spirit -- and then right after the honeymoon, you try to turn him into a doormat.

What is it about the vice presidency that so diminishes anyone chosen? John Nance Garner, FDR's first number two, famously said that being vice president wasn't worth "a bucket of warm piss," but the process of diminishment occurs long before taking office. By that time, the vice president-elect is already just the shell of the leadership and ambition and confidence that led to his selection in the first place.

In the case of Romney and Ryan, the post-nuptial turnaround was no less dramatic than the buildup. Indeed, the recounting of it, in a breathless New York Times piece titled "The Courtship Before Romney Elevated Ryan," reads more like a "Vows" piece than something from the politics desk. The story of how the "blue-state governor" and the "Tea Party hero" finally came together in their "on-again, off-again five-year courtship" hits practically every convention of classic wedding toasts.

The first date when it really clicked: The courtship began "that day in early 2007," when "15 minutes turned into an hour," with the "pair of policy mavens out-geeking each other over esoterica like border-adjustable taxes."

"We went deep into the weeds," Ryan said.

They both saw something in each other:

"...in Mr. Ryan, Mr. Romney saw shades of himself: a clean-cut numbers guy who favored the cold-eyed truths of actuarial tables over ideology for its own sake. ... In Mr. Romney, Mr. Ryan saw, over time, a presidential candidate as steeped in the messy minutia of policy as he was. 'A classic executive,' Mr. Ryan said."

Still, it started slow: "Between 2007 and 2010, most of their interactions were glancing."

But they gradually got to know each other: "Over the past 18 months, with Mr. Romney emerging as the Republican Party's presidential nominee, the frequency and intensity of their communication deepened."

And the bonds of policy intimacy began to grow:

"'A lot of substance was exchanged between them,' said Tom Rath, a longtime political adviser to Mr. Romney. ... [Ryan] became comfortable enough to send Mr. Romney memos over the past few months encouraging him to focus on bolder ideas and to offer greater specificity in his proposals."

Soon, their friends began to notice that this was something special:

"'Ryan's name came up very frequently,' [said Rath]. Those guys who were traveling with Governor Romney would say, 'Oh, I know he talked to Ryan about this' or 'Ryan and he were e-mailing about that.' ... Their interactions became so commonplace that colleagues recalled spotting Mr. Ryan duck into a phone booth in the House to take a call from Mr. Romney."

"What I was very surprised by was how much he and Mitt were talking, even prior to Paul endorsing him," said Rep. Aaron Schock. "It was way beyond the perfunctory solicitations for support."

But as the relationship deepened, Ryan got cold feet: "Friends said he had wondered aloud about the depth of Mr. Romney's commitment to bold conservative ideas, asking colleagues whether he was 'wishy-washy,' as one of them recalled."

Before he was willing to go further, Ryan wanted to see a ring: "Mr. Ryan recalled that he had wanted specifics before he was willing to deliver his endorsement."

And Romney, perhaps sensing this might be The One, stepped up the plate: "Mr. Romney delivered what Mr. Ryan was seeking in a series of phone calls and meetings, determined to win Mr. Ryan over."

And it worked: "In the course of those lengthy discussions, Mr. Ryan said, 'I got a very good idea of the kind of reformer he wants to be.'"

And then, each of them just knew: "Mr. Ryan was a touchstone for Mr. Romney as he tried to ensure that his policies were in sync with the spiritual heart of the party, the House Republicans."

"'I met with Rick Perry and Newt -- all of them -- Huntsman,' Ryan said. 'I would tell my colleagues, 'Romney is the one who understands this stuff.'"

So everybody raise a glass to the happy couple! It was, to borrow a great Yiddish word that was used many times during a wedding I attended last weekend in Los Angeles, bashert -- meaning, destiny or fate, that the couple was meant to be.

Okay, you can lower your glasses now, because it turned out the honeymoon lasted until the end of Romney's introduction speech. Right after making it public in front of God, their families, and some rally-goers in Norfolk, the campaign immediately set about undermining all the qualities Romney professed to love about Ryan.

Steadiness? Well, the first thing that was required was for Ryan to, in large measure, disavow the budget that was the very thing that brought him to running-mate-consideration-level in the first place. One of Ryan's first interviews was with Fox News' Brit Hume, in which Hume, to his credit, pressed Ryan on the fact that the $716 billion that the Romney campaign claims the Affordable Care Act cut from Medicare is very similar to the proposals in the first Ryan budget.

Ryan's response: "Only President Obama raids $716 billion from the Medicare program. He cut $716 billion from the Medicare program to pay for Obamacare."

Pressed further by Hume, the man selected for his "firm principles," "values," and leadership quickly raised the white flag: "I joined the Romney ticket."

Which, translated, means: "Whatever I said before I joined the Romney ticket is null and void if Mitt doesn't like it. And besides, I let him manage the checkbook. I'm not good with all those numbers -- I'm just here to look politically pretty."

In fairness to the newly minted couple, this is hardly an exception to the rule. In 1996, Bob Dole, an unexciting establishment-approved GOP presidential nominee, needed some political pizzazz (sound familiar?). And wanted a running mate that would, as the New York Times put it at the time, show that "the Republican Party is more inclusive and moderate than it is reputed to be." And so Jack Kemp, who had spoken out in favor of affirmative action and against denying social services to illegal immigrants, was chosen. And immediately after being selected he set about "repositioning himself to try to submerge his differences with Mr. Dole on those two issues."

"You're watching a metamorphosis," Kemp said at the time. "I would be a fool to put my feet down in a position where I can't accommodate metamorphoses." Except in this case, the butterfly is metamorphosing back into a caterpillar.

Four years later, it was the same routine -- this time on the Democratic side of the aisle, where Joe Lieberman had to backtrack on his support for school vouchers to look better on the arm of Al Gore. He also had to make, as the LA Times wrote, "a conciliatory gesture to Hollywood activists rankled by his crusade against sex and violence in youth entertainment."

And in the last presidential campaign, Joe Biden had to paper over his disagreements with Barack Obama on Iraq. "Joe wanted to be the vice president or secretary of state, and for either outcome he needed to make sure he didn't contradict Obama on anything," a Biden associate told Politico.

God forbid a ticket have enough faith in the public to admit what we all know -- that running mates frequently disagree on a few issues. Yes, the media is certainly part of the problem. Any hint of daylight on any issue between a nominee and a running mate is treated as if the press has found the transcript for the 18-minute gap on the Nixon tapes.

It's a strange process for both members of the ticket -- it's not just the vice presidential nominee that's diminished by it. We've set up a system to pick our leaders in which the willingness to lose all self-respect -- to say nothing of our respect -- is one of the essential job requirements. After years of achievement and accomplishment, candidates finally get into the contest they've been working toward for most of their lives and they suddenly seem desperate, insecure, and off-kilter.

So maybe we can help by telling future vice presidential nominees that it's okay if they want to have their own opinion once in a while. The media might take to the fainting couch, but the public won't. After all, we all know what happens to most marriages when one half of the happy couple completely submerges his or her personality so soon after saying "I do." In fact, we have an entire HuffPost section devoted to it.

 
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