Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Game on: Romney, Ryan and the new old campaign

MITT ROMNEY made a huge wager on Saturday when he tapped Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to be his vice presidential running mate for the presidency. Despite his Mormon religion’s opposition to gambling, Romney’s learned something from casino mogul and Romney SuperPAC sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson. Romney’s learned how to double down, and he did it without ever setting foot in a casino.

Embodied in his campaign’s biggest wager is the idea that Romney and Ryan can make their implicit support of the severe, unpopular Ryan budget palatable to the broad cross-section of the American people, who’d rather not destroy the social safety net in order to save it. To go by the early polling and reactions to the ticket that have surfaced since early Saturday, Romney-Ryan 2012 has its work cut out.

“I am deeply honored and excited to join you as your running mate,” Ryan said Saturday in Norfolk, Va., in an appearance with Romney at the USS Wisconsin. “Governor Romney is the man for this moment. And he and I share one commitment: We will restore the greatness of this country.”

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Romney’s choice of Ryan, son of a wealthy man and a millionaire in his own right, a seven-term congressman and the chairman of the House Budget Committee, weds Romney’s campaign body & soul to the Ryan budget. The plan, introduced in March, would change the fee-for-service components of Medicare, replacing them with a voucher (fancy word for coupon) system; slash spending for public transit infrastructure by 28 percent; deeply cut Pell grants for up to 1 million low-income students, and give major oil companies about $40 billion in tax breaks over the next decade.

Small wonder that Democratic strategist Paul Begala, writing Saturday in The Daily Beast, called the Ryan budget resolution “the most radical governing document in a generation … the fiscal embodiment of the deeply evil, wholeheartedly selfish so-called philosophy of Ayn Rand.”

“The Romney-Ryan budget would dramatically alter America's basic social compact,” Begala said. “No less an expert than Newt Gingrich called it "right-wing social engineering.”

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So ... who is Paul Ryan? An image overhaul may be in the offing. The party and right-wing media are already trying to position Ryan as a hip, tuned-in bright young thing — walking around Capitol Hill with an iPod! Listening to Metallica and Led Zeppelin! All due props to iPods, Metallica and Led Zeppelin, but that’s not the Paul Ryan the country’s paying attention to. It’s not enough to paint Ryan as some iconoclastic alternative to conventional Capitol Hill politics. To the degree the country knows who Paul Ryan is, he’s seen as the embodiment of conventional Capitol Hill politics, the ultimate insider, the party’s theoretician in chief, king of the wonks.

If economic concerns are topic A, the American people may get some sense of Ryan’s investment in America by the way he invests in America. OpenSecrets.org released a recent copy of Ryan’s IRS 1040 Schedule III, governing Assets and “unearned” income. What’s revealed is a potpourri of investments: a 7.4 percent interest in a timber company in Oklahoma; several mutual fund positions; shares of Apple, Citrix Systems, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Home Depot, Medtronic, Wells Fargo and IBM.

A quick survey of these docs didn’t appear to reveal any international entanglements; nothing originating from the Cayman Islands popped out. But the fact of these pages and what they mean reinforces the narrative that already prevails about Romney the rich man. Now, Romney’s got another rich guy to be his running mate.

Begala observed in The Daily Beast: “Romney Hood has his Friar Tuck.”

LDS150, commenting at The Daily Beast, griped about the Ryan choice and cut to the chase of the problem with Romney making that choice:

“He should have picked Portman from Ohio. Why do the Republicans feel the incessant need to go extreme? To appeal to their base? Their base is never going to vote for Obama, so why are the Republicans worried about pandering to them? Their hate for Obama is enough for them to vote for anyone who's on the Republican ticket. Why not, for the love of god, try to appeal to the center!? Romney is going to NEED Ohio in this election, and right now he's losing it big time. Portman may have at least given him a bump in my home state and made it a competition. But, again, Romney has chosen politics over country, and is trying to make this as divisive a campaign as we have ever seen.”

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RYAN HAS automatically inherited one of the problems that Romney’s been facing for months. Two first-blush reaction surveys were taken and released within 48 hours of Ryan being named. The results? America shrugged. A USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 42 percent of Americans thought the Ryan pick was “fair to poor,” while 39 percent thought it was “excellent to pretty good.” Sarah Palin (!) scored higher than that in the corresponding poll back in 2008.

A similar first-reaction poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News found much the same thing: Ryan viewed favorably by only 38 percent of that poll’s respondents, unfavorably by 33 percent.

In two days, Paul Ryan took possession of Mitt Romney’s months-long inability to break out of the 30th percentile in favorable poll ratings. And he just signed on. Is the bloom off the rose already?

It’s true that a significant percentage of voters in both polls apparently haven’t made up their minds, either having “no opinion” or being “undecided.” But that’s a problem when the shiny new running mate has been a fixture in Congress for seven terms. The fact that such a sizable percentage of the electorate shrugged, with no feeling for Ryan one way or the other, points to the next challenge for Team Romney: Telling the American people who Paul Ryan is.

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This won’t be a problem for the Obama re-election campaign. Team Obama doesn’t have to define Paul Ryan for the nation. Ryan’s budget — or the most politically radioactive parts of that budget — has already done a great job of doing just that.

And Team Obama has already done a masterful job of doing for Mitt Romney that which he won’t do himself: Define the candidate. Because of their steady and aggressive efforts, and partly through Romney’s own, Mitt Romney is defenseless. He won’t build on his narrative as governor of Massachusetts. He can’t build on his experience at Bain Capital, once the crown jewel of his bona fides. He can’t or won’t expand on the singularity of his Mormon faith. He won’t distill the kernel of his economic plan consistently on the campaign trail.

In some ways, he’s willingly defenseless. He’s repeatedly said he won’t release more of his tax returns, refusing to use the weapon of full disclosure as a way to undercut Obama’s use of Romney’s intransigence on the issue. Romney not only can’t fight back, he won’t fight back against the defining, Mr. One Percent meme that’s been settling around his feet and ankles like quick-hardening concrete.

And Paul Ryan — another man born to uncommon privilege, another man with what theGrio’s Joy Reid called “congenital wealth” and the policy prescriptions that go with it — can’t help Romney at all. You see that in the early polling on Ryan’s favorables. He’s nearly as upside down as Romney is in this important polling component. And Ryan just got in the race.

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THIS UPSIDE-DOWN aspect of favorables for the Romney-Ryan campaign mirrors the ticket’s apparent attempt to subvert the physics of presidential politics. It’s one of the laws of political thermodynamics: A presidential ticket is defined by the candidate at the top, not the bottom. The vision and energy and emotional frisson come first, in the presidential nominee himself. Later, the need for legislative gravitas and geographic, philosophical or demographic balance is satisfied by the running mate.

Not this time. Not this campaign. Romney’s pick of Ryan suggests that heads is tails, the undercard is being asked to conjure the appeal and magic of the championship fight. That’s a problem.

Commenting on Ryan’s maiden voyage on the stump, Erick Erickson, the Red State blogger, clearly got this on the day of Ryan’s announcement. “I think Paul Ryan did a more articulate job of selling Mitt Romney this morning than Mitt Romney’s done the last three months,” he said at RedState.com.

Richard Viguerie understood this before Ryan was named to the ticket. “I think most conservatives are fond of Paul Ryan,” the conservative firebrand and political author said Friday on MSNBC. “He’s done yeoman work for our cause, but I think Governor Romney needs something that’s going to bring more energy, quite frankly, than a Washington insider … he’s not going to bring the excitement that’s needed at the grassroots level to bring these millions of disaffected, right-of-center voters back into the Republican Party like the Tea Party did in 2010.”

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They’ll need more help than that. When you look at American voters through a more granular lens, Romney’s bid for boldness could be too bold by half. Conservatives love Ryan, but he’s hampered by an inescapable fact: More people know about Ryan’s ideas than they really know about him. And what they know of those ideas doesn’t work in his campaign’s favor.

Ryan voted against the Lily Ledbetter Act, which made equal pay for equal work a federal law when Obama signed it in January 2009. Ryan previously announced support for cutting SNAP grants (the federal food-stamp program) by 18 percent. Ryan has said he’d overturn Roe v. Wade, and would allow no exceptions for rape or incest. He’s said he would vote to defund Planned Parenthood, and would obviously scuttle the specifics of the Affordable Care Act that are beneficial to women’s reproductive rights. Then there’s what he proposes to do to Medicare.

All in all, that’s not likely to fly with the 51 percent of the American electorate called “women.” Women of childbearing age can't be expected to get behind what Ryan would do to the health services they now enjoy under ACA. And senior citizens — hands down the most reliable American voting demographic — can’t be expected to support the voucherized dismantling of Medicare, a social program that works, and works well, on their behalf in their golden years.

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Since Saturday, wags in the punditburo have been saying that Ryan’s choice to run with Romney finally boils the campaign down to a stark choice between two fundamentally antagonistic views of enlivening the American economy. They've said that Ryan is a "game changer." But in fact, the campaign up to Saturday has always been about making a choice, as represented by the two campaigns, starkly different in their narratives, styles and experience.

It's just that where Romney has sketched his plan for economic recovery in broad, gauzy strokes rich in campaign bromide, Ryan’s the new Mr. Granular, prepared to get down to the specifics. Ryan’s selection only fortifies — magnifies — the distinctions that were already there between the two campaigns. He's not a game changer, he's a game confirmer.

Even before Ryan was picked, Team Romney tried to create hard distinctions between Mitt Romney and President Obama vis-à-vis domestic economic concerns and how best to address them. Romney just never convincingly gave weight to that effort. Now, with Ryan aboard, Team Romney has acquired that gravitas — from a running mate maybe more qualified to be president than Mitt Romney is.

Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan makes it easier for the Obama campaign to reframe the debate in accessible terms, in terms people can get their heads around.

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UP TO NOW, both campaigns and the media that cover them have been addressing economic matters on the grand, cosmic, macro scale — talking about “The Economy.” For both campaigns, there's now the opportunity to bring the imperious grandiosity of national economics down to something smaller, something personal, something micro: a chance to talk about “the economy.”

Like the economy as personally experienced by the farmers and ranchers of Iowa, a state badly hammered by the current nationwide drought. Or the economy of tens of millions of senior citizens around the country. Or the economy of tens of millions of women (quiet as kept, one of the largest cohorts of Medicare recipients). Or the economy of hundreds of thousands of construction workers idled by lack of work due to public-works legislation that languishes, or has died, in a gridlock Congress. Or the millions of borderline hungry Americans facing cuts in the food assistance they need.

Each of these slices of the American mosaic have personal economies. In the vast national aggregate, these multiple economies deserve to be viewed in the singular and in upper case. But that’s not where most people live their lives. Americans aren’t nearly as consumed with The Economy as much as each American is concerned with the lower-case economy that’s his or her very own.

That’s the challenge facing Romney-Ryan — distilled by the observant soul who tweeted this today: “Ryan solved the conservative problem but he doesn’t solve the middle-class problem, and that’s a problem.”

Image credits: Romney and Ryan: From the Romney 21012 Web site. Virtue of Selfishness cover: © 1964 Signet/New American Library. Ryan (detail of photo): © 2011 Gage Skidmore. Romney: ABC News. Education and training investment under Ryan FY 2013 budget: Center for American Progress, from U.S. Census and Congressional Budget Office data.

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