Mitt Romney's gutsy, savvy and base-energizing selection this weekend of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate caps an intense pre-convention election contest that now finds both Romney and Obama closing in on the final stretch of the two-year-long contest.
If history is any guide, the immediate impact of the announcement will likely provide a brief lift in national polls for the Romney campaign which is good news for a rattled team coming off of a particularly bad couple of weeks. Down (or tied) in nearly every national poll following a perceived gaffe filled foreign trip, Romney has found himself on the defensive in recent weeks deflecting attacks about his fitness for office, his taxes and his role at Bain. None of these topics should have been on the summer campaign agenda for a candidate needing to make this election a referendum on the incumbent's failed policies.
Enter Paul Ryan. Within minutes of the announcement, the White House attack machine went into overdrive cranking out missive after missive about Ryan's positions on everything from choice to entitlement reforms. One thing is clear from their reaction: team Obama realizes that the selection of an articulate, credible, likable, fiscal conservative with a reformers track record and a positive vision for the future not only energizes the GOP base but potentially opens the tent to independents hungry for solutions to our country's deepening financial crisis. Ryan is no silver spoon Republican and he can easily move from intellectual conversations about budget implications to everyman topics such as hunting and the NFL. Like most Americans, he likely had never heard of the Olympic sport dressage until this year.
For Mitt Romney, the pick also shows an uncanny understanding of history. Only twice in his lifetime has an elected incumbent president been defeated -- in 1980 and in 1992. The similarities between the Reagan/Carter and Bush/Clinton era campaigns and the billion dollar war being waged for the White House today could not be more evident. For a challenger seeking a clear roadmap to 1600 Pennsylvania in the fall the quintessential themes of both the former campaigns serve as perfectly aligned bookends for the closing argument Romney and Ryan must now take to the American people.
In 1980 as unemployment jumped nearly 30% in two years to 7.5% a majority of Americans found themselves victims of Jimmy Carter's "great malaise." More Americans thought the nation was going in the wrong direction and Carter's job approval never broke above 40% during his final year in office. Ronald Reagan famously captured the mood of the nation when he asked Americans a simple question: where they better off today, after four years of Carter, than they were before he took office? The resounding answer was no. Reagan framed the election as a clear referendum on the economic failures of the incumbent and inspired an electorate looking for a leader willing to take bold positions at a time of great uncertainty.
Twelve years later, with the economy stalled and unemployment on the rise, Bill Clinton famously framed the election as a choice between a new generation who understood the economic challenges being faced by the middle class and the perceived "out of touch" class of leaders currently in power lacking a clear vision for the future. "It's the economy, stupid" became the rallying cry for the campaign and clearly cemented the economy as the penultimate issue of 1992 election.
Today, with unemployment on rising (breaching 8.3% last week), a stalled recovery, a global economy in tatters and a broken and dangerous domestic spending policy that has put the United States in hock to creditors such as the Chinese Government to the tune of trillions of dollars, Mitt Romney has the opportunity to once again make this election a referendum -- not a choice -- about the incumbent's mismanagement of our national economy.
Fifty-four percent of the nation now disapproves of the job President Obama is doing according to the most recent Rasmussen Reports survey. Without a single economic success indicator favoring his reelection, the Obama battle plan is clear: attempt to distort, distract and dodge the economic issues until November and hope that just enough voters in just the right states focus on the noise rather than the serious issues facing our country.
Romney doubled down this week on making the economy the central issue of the campaign. By choosing a serious candidate, with serious ideas on how to fix our fiscal nightmare and take America back from the cliff of financial ruin he is at once reminding Americans that we are in fact not better off today than we were four years ago and he is framing the election about the reason why: it is still the economy, stupid.
Dallas Lawrence is the Chief Global Digital Strategist for Burson-Marsteller and previously served in the administration of President George W. Bush.