By Todd S. Purdum Vanity Fair
Mitt Romney may have won the presidential nomination, but Paul Ryan -- "Mitt Ryan" as the Senate minority leader mistakenly referred to him -- has won the future of the party.
Photograph by Justin Bishop
Wednesday was not just Paul Ryan's night. It was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual truth: this entire G.O.P. gathering is really his convention, much more than Mitt Romney's.
"We're a full generation apart, Governor Romney and I, and in some ways, we're different," Ryan told the delegates, who accorded him by far the most raucous reception of the week. He spoke affectionately, with a joke about how the songs on Romney's iPod are the same ones you hear in hotel elevators. But the joke was a telling one. The truth is that Ryan -- not Romney -- is the voice and face of the modern Republican Party, and the future of the conservative movement, whatever his and Romney's fate this fall. The G.O.P. has Ryan on its iPod.
That theme was underscored by the rest of the evening's program, in which a parade of young Turks -- including some, like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, who had also been mentioned as possible vice-presidential nominees -- shared the spotlight. The two Presidents Bush appeared in a sentimental video, and the party's last nominee, John McCain, was half-ignored as he delivered a somnolent speech on national security on the evening of his 76th birthday.
Instead, it was Ryan and his cohorts who claimed the mantle of Ronald Reagan's optimistic heirs.
"We can do better" -- that trusty slogan that's at least as old as J.F.K.'s 1960 campaign -- has been a leitmotif here all week, and the unspoken thought often seems to be "... than Mitt Romney." As he began the night's business, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, mistakenly referred to "Mitt Ryan," as if to evoke the candidate he'd rather have. Even Condoleezza Rice, by most measures an unlikely and reluctant political warrior, brought the delegates screaming to their feet with her emotional declaration that her parents made her believe that although she grew up in the segregated South unable to eat a hamburger at Woolworth's, she could "be president of the United States -- and she becomes the Secretary of State."
Ron Paul, who also appeared only via video (because of his refusal to have any remarks approved by the Romney campaign), sparked more enthusiasm than his son Rand's in-person testimonial to Romney, and former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas likewise received a rock-star reception when he attacked what he called the Democrats' "liberty-limiting, radical left-wing" ways. (His generous attempt, as an evangelical Christian, to defend Romney's Mormonism was greeted in more subdued terms.)
The whole night seemed to loom as proof of the argument advanced last winter by Grover Norquist, the anti-tax Ayatollah of the party, that conservatives should accept Romney -- whatever his flaws -- because "we just need a president who can sign the legislation that the Republican House and Senate pass. We don't need someone to think. We need someone with enough digits on one hand to hold a pen."
If there is anyone in Congress who represents the kind of program Grover Norquist has in mind, it is Paul Ryan. And though he softened some of his sharper edges on Wednesday night -- presenting his plan to radically overhaul Medicare as a way of preserving it (or of defending it from the Obama health-care plan), not of effectively replacing it with a voucher system -- he burned with zeal to remake the government, vowing, "Let's get this done." He spoke of his widowed mother as his role model for her resilience in starting a small interior-decorating business instead of living in grief, and he unself-consciously wiped a tear from his eye in the bargain.
Ryan may espouse some of the most radical prescriptions in years for re-writing the social compact, but like Ronald Reagan at his most successful, he did not sound or seem scary Wednesday night. He spoke calmly, earnestly, seriously -- like the straight arrow he obviously is. He stretched more than a few facts in attacking Barack Obama (for example, by faulting the president for failing to act on the recommendations of the deficit commission on which Ryan served, without acknowledging that he himself had refused to endorse the commission's proposals).
But it seemed unlikely that anything much Ryan said could be frightening grist for one of the president's own attack ads. He avoided any overt mention of hot-button issues like abortion, contenting himself to say that he and Romney both believe that "in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of Life." His own kids and attractive wife made an adorable tableau.
Four years ago, in Sarah Palin, John McCain was saddled with a running mate who excited his party's faithful base far more than he did. She made an electric convention speech, but it soon turned out she was far from ready for prime time. Paul Ryan has already proven he has no such similar problem, though his speech made it clear that Romney now does: for a guy who claims to lead the Republican Party, he has a hell of an act to follow, his own nominal No. 2.
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