Mitt Romney is a very conventional Republican of a very different age. He has roots in 1960s Republican orthodoxy. His personal style, if not his political instincts, is deeply conservative. He respects authority, precedent and history.
But had he decided to run a conventional Republican challenge against President Barack Obama this fall, he would have flown Saturday to San Diego and announced the identity of his running mate — someone like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, all reasonableness and Ivy League, but not Wall Street nor Tea Party — on the USS Midway.
Instead, Romney flew east, to Virginia, an important swing state, and stood before the USS Wisconsin and announced that he had selected Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the intellectual wunderkind of the new conservatism. Ryan is no midway selection. He is, to choose a redolent phrase from another era, a choice, not an echo.
That was the phrase used to describe Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964 — a conservative choice and not an echo of the Republican mainstream that had produced two doomed candidacies by Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York and one by Vice President Richard Nixon of California.
Not a Goldwater repeat
Today, no one suggests that Ryan is a Goldwater figure, nor that the new Romney-Ryan ticket is headed toward losing 44 states the way Goldwater did nearly a half century ago. Romney is a far stronger candidate than Goldwater, his incumbent rival is far weaker than Lyndon B. Johnson was only 11 months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and his running mate, Ryan, the first House member to join a GOP ticket since Goldwater chose the almost unknown William Miller of Lockport, N.Y., is far more accomplished and far more visible than Miller. Indeed, when Goldwater completed his acceptance speech in the Cow Palace in the summer of 1964, a political commentator, astonished at a speech that deplored moderation in the defense of liberty, said, “My gosh, he’s going to run as Barry Goldwater.”
Romney’s selection of Ryan does not suggest that the former Massachusetts governor is going to run as Barry Goldwater, but it sure suggests he is not going to run as the Mitt Romney who ran a spirited but unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, nor as the Mitt Romney who governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, when he championed the health care law that Democrats now say is the model for Obamacare.
A sharp right turn
This is also a repudiation of the longtime doctrine of presidential politics, which stipulates that Republican candidates run to the right in the primaries and caucuses only to steer if not veer to the center for the general election. Romney has made a sharp right turn with his selection of Ryan, signaling his calculation that it is more important to motivate his base than to appeal to the center.
This decision reflects, probably shrewdly, the notion that there are dwindling numbers of undecideds in this election and that appealing to them only endangers the Republican faithful or the increasingly fervent Republican right, whose presence at the polls in November is utterly indispensable to Romney’s fortunes.
Echoes of ‘88 and ‘08
There are some important and very instructive echoes from 1988 and 2008 in this development.
Almost a quarter century ago, Vice President George H.W. Bush sought to give a youthful tint to his campaign against Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts by selecting Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate. At 41, Quayle was a year younger than Ryan but less at the center of the Reagan-era GOP debate than Ryan is now.
Four years ago, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was less conventional than Romney, nonetheless sought to change the dynamic and the nature of the political discourse by choosing a young, attractive darling of the right. That choice, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, was disastrous, as the self-proclaimed maverick soon became a rogue campaigner and swiftly displayed her unreadiness and unsuitability for national office.
Romney acted Saturday out of the same impulse but chose a running mate of substantially different character, experience and outlook. Like Palin, he is young and appealing, representing what John Kennedy would have called a new generation of leadership. Ryan is a fresh face to the vast majority of Americans who don’t watch the Sunday interview shows or read conservative blogs.
But along with his new ideas, symbolized by his budget proposals heavy on overhauling entitlements, Ryan brings real Washington experience and a heavy Capitol credential: his tenure as chairman of the House Budget Committee. Republicans and Democrats alike agree that Ryan’s 2010 budget plan would have, in the phrase Democrats used to disparage it, changed Medicare as we know it. This is a brave choice that offers a glimpse of the map Romney has chosen for the fall.
First, of course, he intends to contest Wisconsin, where Obama defeated McCain by 14 percentage points in 2008 but a place that has become a savage political battleground after the election two years ago of Gov. Scott Walker, who himself departed from Wisconsin Republican orthodoxy by mounting a fight against state workers and their union. In a close race, the state’s 10 electoral votes could be crucial, if not deciding.
Convention race won’t do
But Romney also has determined that a conventional race against an incumbent, which might mean running simply as the candidate who is not Obama, will not do this time around, not with Obama assailing Romney and his business record. Instead, with Ryan on the ticket, the Republicans now offer more than simply an alternative, but an entirely separate route out of the nation’s economic mess.
In addition, with this one decision, Romney has taken the focus off his own financial record and placed it squarely on Obama’s economic record — and on Ryan’s imaginative ideas.
“We’re in a different, and dangerous, moment,” Ryan said after being introduced by Romney. “We’re running out of time — and we can’t afford four more years of this.”
Few political conversations have the potential to adjust so swiftly and as completely as this one. Already the talk is of what Ryan believes, not of what Romney made at Bain Capital. For that reason alone, Romney may have hit pay dirt.