Published for the Washington Post, August 13, 2012
It is the recurring temptation of self-confident, insular elites to assume that the whole country loves what they love, hates what they hate and believes what they believe. “The American people are not going to elect a 70-year-old, right-wing, ex-movie actor to be president,” Jimmy Carter’s aide Hamilton Jordan said in 1980. This view was universally shared, except by voters in 44 states.
In early 2010, Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” was seen as a boon to Democratic midterm prospects. Focus groups found elements of the plan unpopular. Republicans who endorsed it were subject to attack ads. Democratic campaign chairman Chris Van Hollen described the “Roadmap” as a political “gift” — before Republicans achieved the largest partisan shift in the House since 1948.
Many in politics and the media are convinced that the selection of Paul Ryan will chain Mitt Romney to an unpopular House budget, shift attention away from an anemic economy, alienate independents and undermine Republican prospects in Florida.
It is possible that they are right. Over the past few years, Republicans themselves have often been divided on the benefits of Ryan’s relentless budgetary specificity. Nearly all think a national debate on entitlements is inevitable. At least some think it is politically premature, at least on the presidential level.
Thanks to the bold, controversial Romney, we are about to find out. (If nothing else, the Ryan nomination has led to an outbreak of previously improbable adjectives.) The Romney-Ryan case is not easy, but the conclusion of the debate is not foregone. The Democratic ticket will go small, detailing how Ryanism will hurt this group and that. The Republican ticket will go large, arguing that budgetary indiscipline creates uncertainty that undermines current growth, while eventually leading to fiscal crisis and economic catastrophe. This is a more complex argument than “economy, bad.” It is also more likely to yield a governing mandate, which seems to be Romney’s admirable, unexpected goal.