It's rare, in this day and age, for a political decision to make almost everyone happy. Mitt Romney seems to have done that with the selection of Paul Ryan, Wisconsin's Janesville-area Congressional rep and former Wienermobile pilot, as his running mate.
Let's start with conservatives. One of the concerns with Romney has been his past as a (very) moderate Republican governor—pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, pro-giving-cars-to-welfare-recipients. Romney, like the Republican party, has moved to the right in recent years, but he was so moderate so recently that he's not particularly trusted by the GOP base. Paul Ryan is an excellent counter-balance to Romney for conservatives. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board is excited:
The best rebuttal to President Obama's attack machine is Mr. Ryan himself. No one knows the facts of his budget better than he does, no one in the Republican Party can explain better the policy choices on Medicare, and few can better put those details into a larger moral context.
Above all, Mr. Ryan has the kind of sunny demeanor that is a living repudiation of the "radical" and "extremist" charge. He will not come across as arrogant or threatening.
"Romney-Ryan are firmly offering to complete the Reagan Revolution," said James Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute. "The best analogy is, I think, the late 1970s when Reagan became the candidate… I think Ryan has that Reagan-like quality," said Charles Krauthammer.
Romney all but signed on to Ryan's budget proposal (Ryan is the chair of the House budget committee), though he may paradoxically try to distance himself from it slightly, so Ryan doesn't add much new in the way of policy to the campaign; he simply re-emphasizes Romney's approach to the budget, which includes everything from tax policy to entitlements.
Which is not to say that Ryan isn't a risky pick. From the polling I've seen, the safe choice would have been Marco Rubio: a young Latino who's proven able to win statewide elections in a major swing state. Ryan doesn't poll as well, or well at all so far: right now he's at Dan Quayle levels, though as Romney's pollster fairly points out, it does reflect how Ryan, despite his reputation in wonky political-journalism circles, just isn't all that well known, as you'd expect from someone who represents Kenosha and Racine. That CNN poll has Ryan's "never heard of" polling at 31 percent among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, well above Chris Christie or Rubio.
One interesting thing about the Ryan choice as strategy—which is either good or bad news for Republicans, it's hard to tell—is that Ryan polls well with seniors and women:
A recent Rasmussen poll showed that 31 percent of likely senior voters gave Ryan a "very favorable" rating, compared with 21 percent of all legal-age voters giving him that rating. Just 16 percent of seniors gave him a "very unfavorable" rating.
Mitt Romney also does best with… seniors and women. In the CNN poll, Romney's only lead outside the margin of error within age groups is 65+, 58 percent to 39 percent (Obama's only such lead is among the 18-34 group, 73 percent to 25 percent.) With women, it's a bit more complicated—Obama is (very slightly) more popular with women, but women have a more favorable impression of Romney than men (49 percent to 46 percent, compared to 44/50).
If I had to guess what explains this seeming contradiction, it's that conservative men will vote for Romney over Obama, but don't necessarily like him very much; men are less favorable to both Obama and Romney. It could be good for Republicans if Ryan helps lock in Romney's natural advantages; less so if he's duplicating his inherent advantages. In that sense, it's not quite as risky a pick as it looks.
Ryan's polling is one reason he's a popular choice for liberal Democrats. Jamelle Bouie calls Ryan "Obama's Dream Opponent":
Last year, the Washington Post and ABC News surveyed Americans on key elements of the Ryan plan. Would you support reforming Medicare such that beneficiaries “receive a check or voucher from the government each year for a fixed amount they can use to shop for their own private health insurance policy?" Sixty-five percent of respondents said they would oppose such a plan. If told that the cost of private insurance would eventually outpace the value of the voucher—projected under Ryan’s proposal—opposition rises to 80 percent.
The same goes for new tax cuts. By two-to-one (44 percent to 22 percent), according to the Pew Research Center, Americans say that cutting taxes for the rich would harm the economy. The same percentage says that raising taxes on the rich would make the tax system more fair than it currently is.
This gives the Obama campaign a big fat target in a demographic Romney is stronger in: old people. Steve Benen's right when he senses this will be an election about Medicare, and who can get the most Medicare-eligible and near-eligible to the ballot box. I suggest using Sam Waterston's proven-effective attack messaging on how robots eat old people's medicine for food.
Polling suggests that Ryan's budget plan could be wildly unpopular in the particulars once they're made clear. Ryan is something of an unknown to people who don't closely follow politics. Add those things together and you get this:
The public did not view Romney as an extremist. For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed “ending Medicare as we know it” — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing…. While conducting a different focus group — this one with non-college-educated Milwaukee voters on the eve of Wisconsin’s April 3 primary — Burton and Sweeney were surprised to learn that even after Romney had spent months campaigning, many in the group could not recognize his face, much less characterize his positions.
In other words, the Ryan budget would be an albatross if anyone thought Romney took it seriously. Now, in adding Ryan to the ticket, the message is: we mean it, man. Which is why the Obama campaign's splash page is currently this:
Over at New York magazine, John Heileman reports that the Obama camp is giddily relieved about having Paul Ryan as their opponent, and gives a few suggestions as to why:
It’s not simply that they, too, see the pick as an admission by Team Romney that its strategy was failing. Or that Ryan doesn’t clearly pass the test of being (and, crucially, looking) ready to be president…. [T]hey knew full well that if the race were purely a referendum on Obama, they would likely lose — but if bright lines could be drawn on values and visions regarding fiscal choices, that was the kind of election they could win.
Most importantly, the Ryan selection gives Obama's team another shot to wrap Romney in the Ryan budget and sink him; it's their best shot to get traction on something the campaign has had problems getting across.
Meanwhile, their opponents are just as happy about Paul Ryan. But it's not a contradiction: this is simply where politics stands right now. In that sense, it's something of an admirable pick by the Romney campaign, one that emphasizes its ideological beliefs about government at considerable risk for election season.
Photograph: Tobyotter (CC by 2.0)