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Just One Reason to Pick Ryan: Blame the Loss on Conservatives

There are two ways to think about Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan this morning. The first is how it affects Romney’s prospects for winning in November. The second is how it affects the internal struggle between conservatives and moderates within the GOP.

Regarding the first question, the Ryan pick is, of course, lunacy. Ryan’s claim to fame is a long-term budget blueprint that would massively cut Medicare over the coming decades while essentially zeroing out domestic spending on everything else but defense. It would pair this unprecedented austerity with enormous tax cuts for the wealthy. All of these things are, to varying degrees, wildly unpopular. Which makes it hardly surprising that the only time the Ryan budget actually came before voters—in a 2011 congressional special election in upstate New York—it was a political disaster, handing a safe Republican district to a little-known Democrat. 

The argument that Ryan could help Romney in November hinges on the enthusiasm conservatives have for him, and on his personal political dexterity. But, whatever conservative elites may tell themselves, Romney’s problems are emphatically not with the right, which is already highly motivated thanks to its mania over ousting Obama. As one top Republican operative recently told me, “the base’s hatred of the president is so intense that [Romney] has all kinds of room to maneuver.” Rather, Romney’s problem is his historically dismal standing among undecided voters, which Ryan will only weaken. 

As for Ryan’s political talent—well, he’s undeniably talented at something. He’s managed to charm the political press corps by putting a reasonable face on extreme policies and routinely wins plaudits as the most thoughtful man in Washington. Unfortunately for the GOP, the relationship between this talent and the talent you need as the front-man for a national political ticket is exceedingly weak. Writing in anticipation of a possible Ryan pick, Jon Chait explained: “The major argument of my profile of Ryan from last spring is that his public persona is a giant scam; but pulling off a scam like that is the mark of a skillful pol.” No, it’s not. It’s the mark of a skillful political operative. And if being a skillful operative could put you in the Oval Office, my family would be visiting the Karl Rove Presidential Library on our vacation this summer. Alas, we are not. 

Having said all that, there is a rationale for picking Ryan. It just has little to do with strengthening Romney’s chances this fall. In recent weeks, the presidential race has fundamentally changed. Where the polling once showed Obama with a consistent but easily-surmountable lead, it now shows the race moving out of reach for Romney. As the sober minds at NBC’s political unit put it yesterday:

[W]hen the Olympics began, we wrote that we were basically at halftime of the general election -- and Obama had a narrow lead. Well, it’s a little bigger than that now. (People may want to quibble, but you can’t dismiss every poll on sampling.) There’s clearly movement toward the president and clearly problems for Romney personally.

Predictably, this development has unnerved conservatives, who correctly view Team Romney as whiffing on a once-in-a-generation chance against an incumbent president (albeit for the wrong reasons). The most recent outburst resulted in a fatwa against Romney’s perfectly anodyne press secretary, who had the temerity to channel Romney’s pride over his Massachusetts health care law, which is undeniable

So, to review, the key recent development is that Romney is poised to lose a race he should by all rights be winning, and conservatives are poised to blame this loss on his ideological moderation. (He not only gave people health care, he wants credit for it!). Against this backdrop, the rationale for the Ryan pick strikes me as pretty clear: Ryan is the way Romney and his aides escape blame for their now-likely defeat—blame which would be vicious and unrelenting—and pin it in on conservatives instead. With only minor historical revisions, they will be able to tell a story about how Romney was keeping the race close through early August, at which point the party’s conservative darling joined the ticket and sent the poll numbers into steady decline. 

According to this narrative, the campaign will merely be guilty of a political misdemeanor—being bullied by conservatives into a lousy running mate—not the felony of strategically miscalculating against a historically weak incumbent (which is where the existing storyline was headed). That’s a plea bargain any right-minded politico would take, even if they didn’t consciously consider it in those terms. Moreover, there’s a whiff of Pascal’s Wager to the whole gambit: God (in this case, political salvation through ideological extremism) may not exist. But you don’t lose anything by pretending he does. And, who knows, he may surprise you!

Better still, this won’t just be good for Romney’s historical reputation, and for the future career prospects of his campaign team. It will be good for the entire GOP. Pre-Ryan, a Romney loss would have led to the nomination of a Neanderthal in 2016—someone, like Rick Santorum, who could say he warned the party against a candidate too moderate to take on Obama. Post-Ryan, a Romney loss will be read as a Goldwater-esque act of ideological self-immolation, which the party must resist at all costs if it hopes to win another election. Paradoxically, the Ryan pick is both selfish and selfless at the same time. 

What it isn’t, as all the commentators keep insisting, is “bold.” It’s a highly risk-averse move—one that assumes a loss and tries to make the best of it. In that respect, Romney is staying true to himself till the bitter end. 

Update: Credit where due—Ezra Klein made a similar point a few days ago. I'd say “great minds,” but his is vastly greater than mine... 

Update II: See my follow-up item here, in which I deal with a lot of reader comments. 

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