08/18/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sunday Morning Coming Down For Paul Ryan Punditry: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Aug. 17

Romney's decision to do his big Paul Ryan reveal last Saturday morning was one of those deft, media narrative-clinching maneuvers guaranteed to ensure all the Sunday morning conversation that followed centered on the conclusion of the "Veepstakes" and What It All Meant. Indeed, the conversation lockdown on the ensuing Sunday was so total that there really wasn't any need for more than one Sunday morning talk show. Everyone should have just agreed to merge resources, like they do with the presidential pool report.

Nevertheless, with so much sudden interest in Paul Ryan, Sunday's pundits offered up a wealth of quickly surmised assertions, snap judgments, and glib assumptions. Now that we're a few days on from the breaking news, let's see what's standing up to scrutiny, and what needs to be better thought through.

1. The pick was a bold pick from Romney. There are definitely a few ways in which Romney's decision to pair himself with the Wisconsin representative and putative author of the GOP's long-term policy offerings are, indeed, bold. The most obvious way: Compare Paul Ryan to Rob Portman and/or Tim Pawlenty. This is a choice between a pair of wallflowers and the King of the Disco, obviously. Additionally, for everyone who didn't see the Ryan pick coming or otherwise predicted that Romney would go another way (we're implicating ourselves here), it's convenient to think of the pick as "bold," because hey, who could have predicted it, right?

But even if we allow that Ryan was a bold pick, it's pretty hard to attribute the boldness to Romney himself. The GOP establishment has long been inserting themselves, publicly, into the decision-making process. In general, Marco Rubio was the primary beneficiary of their affection and insistence, but in the days leading up to making the pick, Bill Kristol had once again been driving the herd behind picking Ryan.

Romney had also just finished a July in which his campaign was suffering misstep after misstep, driving up concern among his putative allies that he was on his way to bungling away the election. Let's also recall that one week before the Ryan pick was made, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul put the entire right-wing blogosphere onto a war footing when she praised Romney's Massachusetts health care reform, culminating in Ann Coulter bellowing on Sean Hannity's eponymous Fox News show that Romney should be abandoned entirely if he refused to fire Saul from the campaign.

The long and the short of it is this: Had Romney not had a July in which his campaign strategy had become an epic misadventure, nobody would have batted an eye if he'd kept to his plan to just bring on a serviceable, bland partner like Rob Portman. But all of that midsummer mishegas caused everyone's faith in Romney to recede. Picking Ryan helped Romney put all of that in the rear-view mirror and make things jake with everybody.

Still, it's proper to think of the decision as a necessary cave to pressure, and not some example of personal "boldness." But hey, Romney's not crying about it. And no one is happier about the turn of events than Andrea Saul.

2. Ryan can't possibly provide additional enthusiasm to the ticket. Let's explain this strange argument, which is founded on this premise: the GOP base is already raring to vote out President Obama, so while it's nice that they have a vice presidential candidate that the base admires, wouldn't it have made more sense to pick a running mate who could add appeal to a wayward ethnic group (Rubio) or give Romney a better shot at winning a swing state (Portman, also Rubio)?

It's useful, however, to think of "enthusiasm" in a few different ways. Yes, the GOP base is excited to cast a vote against Obama. And if you're among the young CPAC set, fresh out of college and ready to lend a hand to the effort, you're going to work hard. But it's hard to deny that there's a dearth of affection among the base for Romney himself. Our big takeaway from talking to CPAC activists was that everyone was down for the cause, but it wasn't because anyone particularly though Romney was a rock star.

So if you're looking beyond the CPAC striver set, you're faced with a voter base that, by and large, is looking ahead to a "lesser-of-two-evils" election this November. The good news for Romney is that even on his own, the base looks at the "lesser-of-two-evils" equation and discerns a clear winner. That gets them to the polls. But what gets them to donate money? Paul Ryan.

More importantly, the proper way to measure the impact Ryan is going to have on "enthusiasm" is whether or not affection for Ryan is going to bring more people to phone banks, more people to campaign offices, and more people going door-to-door working on get-out-the-vote efforts than Romney would have managed on their own.

Also, have you heard about that whole phenomenon where Mitt Romney was "terrible for traffic" and how "no one wants to read stories about Mitt Romney" online? Well, trust us on this -- based on what we've seen so far, the same can't be said of Paul Ryan.

3. Picking Ryan is definitely going to cost Romney Florida's electoral votes. Of all the things political thought-havers have had to say in the wake of the Ryan decision, we were most dumbstruck by the overconfidence that everybody seemed to have about how Romney had taken Florida off the electoral map.

Look, we understand the thumbnail sketch of the argument. Florida: it's full of old people. Old people: they are on Medicare. Ryan: he wants to deconstruct Medicare into a system where participants get a stack of Ryan Fun Bucks that may or (probably ... in fact pretty much definitely) not keep up with inflation and the rising costs of healthcare (we presume that Romney and Ryan would undo the Affordable Care Act's cost-curve bending). All of which equals old people in a panic.

Take a breath and consider some fundamentals. The argument Ryan will make is that if you are over 55, you will not be impacted by the Ryan Fun Bucks regime. He will couple this with a paean to everyone's grandchildren -- they will be saved from future indenturement to China by lowering the deficit (it's easy to realize savings when you just stop paying for something).

That argument could be enough to settle the fears of Florida's elders. (Ryan's plans for Medicaid, admittedly, might be another story entirely.) That said, it's very possible to overstate how likely it is that Florida retirees will be fearful of Ryan's approach. Ryan is going to The Villages this weekend to "defend" his Medicare policy, but The Villages is a steadfast GOP stronghold. Heck y'all, frankly, it is possible to overstate the predominance of retirees in the Florida electorate -- as Nate Cohn points out: "It turns out that Florida isn’t a giant retirement community worth 29 electoral votes: 78 percent of Florida voters were younger than age 65 in 2008."

Beyond that, let's do a little Carnac The Magnificent bit. Hmmm. I'm thinking of a guy whose health care company, under his watch, famously bilked the Medicare system and earned themselves the largest fraud settlement in the history of the United States. The answer inside the envelope? Rick Scott, the current governor of Florida.

4. Ryan's entrance into the race is going to encourage the candidates to take positions on a number of huge issues, and create a more interesting debate with tons of clarity. Hey, there's no doubt that the Ryan selection has been food for wonks. And that's great. Who doesn't love parsing the particulars of fifty-year projections on discretionary spending. Lots of you, right? And as Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review documented, there was renewed interest in a variety of subjects -- he notes that energy policy, in particular, quickly became a rich vein for reporters to mine.

But the candle that burns bright burns short, as Brainard points out: "Valuable background articles like these quickly gave way to superficial stump-speech coverage, however, as the Obama and Romney campaigns spent Tuesday taking potshots at the other side’s energy platforms." As Dave Weigel notes, when Obama went to Iowa to talk about wind power, locals got a lot of good coverage on the substance. But if you aren't a subscriber to an Iowa newspaper, you probably remember that appearance as "that time Obama made a Seamus joke."

Beyond that, to make the "big issues" more "clear," it would really help things if Romney and Ryan would get their stories straight. (If such a thing is possible.)

5. Ryan's presence on the ticket will ensure substantive coverage that shakes off the silly season and ends all the negativity. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, oh my: No.

MITT ROMNEY, NOW AND THEN: While we're on the subject of the negative tone of the campaign, let's consider how the Romney campaign has reset its stance in that regard. Via Andrew Sullivan, here's Romney, one week ago:

"You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad,” Romney said on the radio. “They were embarrassed. Today, they just blast ahead. You know, the various fact checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them."

The campaign's prior position?

“First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business ... Ads are agitprop ... Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context ... All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

YES, THE ECONOMY IS STILL OBAMA'S GREATEST VULNERABILITY: We know everyone's really excited about the fun debate we'll be having over the long-term policy trajectory of the country, but it's still the present day crisis that really matters, and continues to drag on the incumbent. Per Gallup:

Three months before the election, President Barack Obama gets good marks from Americans for his handling of terrorism, fair marks for education and foreign affairs, but poor marks on immigration and three big economic issues: the federal budget deficit, creating jobs, and the economy generally.

Obama is underwater on "creating jobs" (37 percent approve, 58 percent disapprove), and the economy (36/60). The good news in terms of being underwater on the deficit is that it's not as key of an issue to anyone outside the Beltway media as are jobs and general economic dislocation.

Here's some insightful underscoring from Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice: "Meaning: the economy is still potentially THE issue with Americans -- a fact not evident in the currrent main subjects of the two parties’ current 'debate.'" Preach, Joe.

ABOUT THOSE "CUTS" OBAMA IS MAKING TO MEDICARE: If you hadn't imagined that the Romney campaign and its allies were going to resurrect an old, debunked notion that Obama had stolen money from the Medicare coffers, thus making him they real villain to retirees, well, this week has obviously had news for you. So, everyone's quickly had to run the reality train back a few stops. The Wonkbloggers at the Washington Post handled it well. Here's Sarah Kliff:

A bit of background here: Obama’s Affordable Care Act Medicare cuts reduce how much the program pays hospitals, private insurers and other providers. The $716 billion in savings helped free up funds to pay for other health programs, like the expansion of insurance to 32 million Americans.

That was the primary purpose, at least. There was also a really important side effect: The health care law extended the solvency of Medicare’s Trust Fund. If the program pays hospitals less, each dollar stretches a little bit further. Earlier this year, the independent Medicare Board of Trustees estimated that with these cuts the trust fund would remain solvent through 2024.

Buried here in the explanation, however, is an important aspect of political strategy that should be remarked upon. Romney is arguing that these "cuts" need to be restored. The argument against doing such a thing is that restoring the status quo ante puts the solvency of Medicare back in peril.

But that's the point! The actions taken by the Obama administration here demonstrate that the federal government can have a functional role in solving Medicare's long-term budget problems. This cuts against the story Romney and Ryan want to tell. It's a bad thing if someone proves that the federal government is functional -- Romney and Ryan want to emphasize that it's dysfunctional. And improving Medicare's long-term outlook is terrible for them! The "Ryan Plan" for Medicare only makes sense if Medicare is in crisis.

THE SEARCH FOR NEW OBAMA VOTERS: The Obama campaign has been spending a lot of time and money to register new Democratic voters ahead of the November elections. But as the Boston Globe reports, the investment is not yielding significant returns:

In stark contrast to 2008, when a strong partisan tailwind propelled Democratic voter registration to record levels, this year Republican and independent gains are far outpacing those of Democrats.

In Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada -- tossup states where direct election-year comparisons could be drawn — the numbers are striking. Democratic rolls increased by only 39,580, less than one-tenth the amount at the comparable point in the 2008 election.

At the same time, GOP registration has jumped by 145,085, or more than double for the same time four years ago. Independent registration has shown an even stronger surge, to 229,500, almost three times the number at this point in 2008.

Team Obama Reelect's response: “The fact is, there are currently many more Democrats registered in battleground states now than there were before the 2008 primary campaign began, which means there are fewer eligible voters left to register because of the gains we made in 2008." More here.

WILL OBAMA DROP JOE BIDEN FROM THE TICKET? For the last time, no. Those who will tell you otherwise are only telling you that because they "think you are stupid."

HOW TO ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION: The Atlantic's Derek Thompson takes a deep dive into this week's on-air contretemps between CNN's Soledad O'Brien and Romney surrogate John Sununu, and decides the bout for Sununu, on points. Quibble with that, if you like! But we rather think you'll agree with the way Thompson bottom-lines the matter:

I'd rather O'Brien ask Sununu: Okay, if you want to cut the deficit by as much as Paul Ryan, but you're not going to raise taxes, and you're not going to touch Medicare, and you're not going to touch defense, and you have no plan for fixing Social Security, what exactly are you going to cut, considering most of the rest of the budget is Medicaid, income security programs, benefits for veterans and federal employees, and classic government services like road-building, science-investing, education-spending, and health-inspecting?

Debate moderators, take note.

HERE'S THE MOST FUN THING WE LEARNED ABOUT JOHN SUNUNU THIS WEEK: "'Wonder if Sununu's fired now' is both a legitimate question and a palindrome." [Hat tip: Philip Bump]

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: And now, it's time once again for your Speculatroners to end their week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation, and what knowledge we can glean from history by getting Doris Kearns Goodwin high.

This week, Romney has been faring better in Florida and Virginia. Obama, on the other hand, has been looking stronger in New Hampshire. He's also made gains in Colorado, though signs are mixed in Ohio: Obama is up in one poll, down in another. We'll leave Ohio red, and give Colorado back to the incumbent.

Let's also note that CNN has moved Wisconsin back into "toss-up," by dint of Paul Ryan's presence in the race. We remain nominally inclined to keep Wisconsin blue, but we'll watch to see if a trend takes hold that reverses our thinking. Should Wisconsin swing to Romney and Ryan, it really complicates things for Team Obama Reelect.


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