The announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate late last Friday sent a shockwave through the political and media world. The snap judgment of what passes for conventional wisdom among the chattering class is that the Ryan pick was bold (as opposed to safe), and that the election will henceforth be all about wonky details from the Ryan budget plan. "A campaign of Big Ideas!" the pundits excitedly gasped. "Just what we've always wanted!"
Well, we'll see, won't we? I tend to think that -- even given the opportunity -- most of the media will quickly get tired of actual budgetary issues and return to what they do best: shallow speculation about the horse-race aspect of the contest, focusing on meaningless trifles and shiny distractions because they are so much more fun to "report" on than digging through budgets and doing actual math. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, though. Maybe they'll surprise me.
Cynicism aside, Ryan's choice is going to make for an interesting election dynamic. Mitt Romney really has three choices now: run on the Ryan budget, come up with his own just-as-detailed budget, or try to have things both ways by running away from Ryan's budget while refusing to say what he would do differently as president. Right now it appears Romney really would like to take that third route, but my guess is that the first option is going to be forced upon him by default. Ryan's budget is now going to be (Democrats are already leaning hard on this phrase) "the Romney/Ryan budget."
What is interesting is that this election will be the opposite of the 2008 election, in that everyone's cards will be on the table. By that, I mean that in 2008 we held an "open" election, as neither candidate was a sitting president or vice president. Meaning both John McCain and Barack Obama didn't have budgets of their own for the media to scrutinize. They both released plans (some fuzzier in the math department than others), but were given a pass on nitty-gritty details of those plans. Both candidates were free to use sweeping generalizations about what it was they would be attempting if elected.
Not so, this time around. Barack Obama has sent a budget proposal to Congress every year he's been in office. None of these were voted straight into law, but this is not unusual -- a president's budget is virtually never adopted without major tinkering by both houses. I doubt it's ever happened, or at least not in the past 50 or 60 years. Regardless, the Obama budget documents still exist, and they map out exactly what the president's budget priorities are for the future. So Obama is constrained by what he's already proposed, in a way he wasn't when he was merely Candidate Obama.
Paul Ryan likewise has two budget documents which the Republican House has passed. Neither of these made it into law either, because their purpose was much the same as Obama's budgets -- a political document which laid down a bargaining position for later negotiations between the Republican House and the Democratic Senate. These negotiations never really took place, which means neither document was tested by the fire of necessary compromise.
But they do -- for the first time in a long time -- allow for a straight-up apples-to-apples comparison. Presidents, of course, don't write budgets, the Constitution gives this task to Congress. The Obama budget proposals and the Ryan budget can be seen as equals in both political positioning and in level of detail.
The level of detail won't even be enough for the wonkiest of the inside-the-Beltway crowd. Both men's budget plans were merely for the budget "overview" that Congress is supposed to pass before they get down to the much-harder task of the appropriations bills where every last dollar is accounted for. Ryan's budgets, for instance, say that they're going to get rid of undefined "loopholes" in the tax code -- but never state exactly what this means. Obama's budget has similar wiggle room, as do all budget proposals of this nature.
Still, this is more hard data than the media and the public usually gets from both candidates in a presidential election. The question is what will they do with it?
The most amusing reaction in the political and media world has been outright joy at the selection of Paul Ryan -- from both sides. Republicans are happy because Ryan is loved by the Tea Party base, and Democrats are thrilled at the prospect of putting the Ryan budget into some hard-hitting ads.
There are risks for both sides in this approach. One risk for Democrats is that they decide the race is all but over, that Obama is going to win in a landslide, and that they can relax and not stress out too much about the rest of the election. But the bigger risk for Democrats is underestimating Ryan's ability to defend his own budget plan. Ryan, to put it starkly, is not Sarah Palin. He's not a pit bull in lipstick (or a Mama Grizzly, take your pick). He's a pit bull with a brain. And the ability to make everything he proposes sound not only reasonable but in fact the only possible answer to what ails America. I've already seen some Democrats act entirely too dismissively of Ryan's ability to think on his feet, and articulate his vision. This could be a fatal flaw. Ryan is no lightweight, and Democrats would be wise to realize it now.
The risk for Republicans is that they may have just brewed up some partisan Kool-Aid which is so strong it is simply going to prove to be too unacceptable to large swaths of the American electorate (such as seniors and independent voters). Ryan is a true believer -- of his own genius, among other things. He, quite obviously, believes that if he just explains his plans well enough, that everyone will then quite naturally agree with them. The light will dawn over the electorate, and they'll all be logically forced to conclude that his plan is the only real way to solve any of our problems.
If you'll excuse me for saying so, Ryan (in this respect) sounds like a whole lot of misguided Democrats on this front. Democrats are usually the ones to fall into this fallacy, so it'll be interesting to see the Republican version of "if you'd just listen to my reasoning, I'm sure you'll have to agree with all my conclusions."
Maybe Ryan can pull it off -- who knows? As I said, I certainly do not sell his speaking abilities short. Seeing him interviewed is an interesting experience. He's got his ducks in a row, he's on the "Bill Clinton" level of wonkitude on detail, and he is a perfect interview for cable television because he talks fast and makes his point so overwhelmingly that few media types can even follow his logic well enough to challenge him on any one particular point. In other words, I'm not looking for the David Gregorys of the media world to really dent Paul Ryan in any way. Ryan, to be perfectly honest, appears much more intelligent than almost any of the folks sitting in the anchor chair.
What this means is that the biggest question in the election may be one of messaging. Who can frame the Ryan budget with the voters better? Now, I'd be willing to be that at least 90-95 percent of the people reading this column would have known all about the Ryan budget even before last Friday's announcement. I could have used the phrase "the Ryan budget" in a sentence, and not had to provide any details for readers to understand what I was talking about.
Hard as it is for me to admit, though, the vast, vast majority of the American public simply does not read this column. Or (more to the point) any political columns like this. An enormous segment of the American voters have never even heard of the Ryan budget (or Paul Ryan) before now. They are about to, in a big way.
The Obama camp's challenge is to present all the negatives of the Ryan budget to the American public in a way they can relate to. Democrats see this (as the military calls it) as a "target-rich environment." Picture yourself duck hunting, and a flock flies by that is so enormous it blocks out the sun. Pretty much any direction you aim, you're going to score a hit. This is why there's so much glee in the Democratic camp right now.
The Romney camp chose to meet the challenge head-on. If Mitt Romney is going to be attacked over the Republican budget plan, what better person to make the case for it than the plan's author? Ryan will be spending a lot of time making this case to American voters who have never even heard of him before now.
That article I linked to above has a cautionary tale for both sides, though. The New York Times reported on focus groups set up by Democrats to test how attacking the Ryan budget's actual details would play with the public. Here's what happened:
According to the Times report, the attacks had little impact. The participants "simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing."
As I said, this is cautionary for both sides. When people do find out what is in the Ryan budget, they mostly don't like it. But the American public shows an enormous ability (as always) to come to the wrong conclusion, as well.
Who frames this issue best in the next month is going to win the election.
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