In modern U.S. history, there has never been a vice-presidential nominee like Paul Ryan. That is to say, Republicans have never before nominated someone for V.P. in hopes that he, and not the would-be President, would define the critical domestic policies of the entire federal government.
The great majority of vice-presidents have been famously insignificant—unless, of course, their boss dies or resigns, and they get to move into the Oval Office. They usually landed on the ticket because they filled some need for demographic, regional, or ideological balance. Then they spend four or eight years in office obeying presidential orders, however trivial, and trying to stay out of trouble.
Dick Cheney was the leading exception to the rule. But, while Cheney was an unusually powerful veep, he never took (at least not in public) a position at odds with those articulated by George W. Bush. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act, even the use of torture on suspected terrorists were all championed, vigorously and unambivalently, by the president he served.
But Ryan would likely be different. Since 2008, he has been hailed, or damned, as the “intellectual leader” of his party. While Romney has spent the past three years bobbing and weaving around his erstwhile moderate positions, Ryan has proudly stood up for a program of privatization and budget cuts embraced by no Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater (whose running mate, the justly forgotten William G. Miller, was the last sitting House member named to a major-party ticket.)
Although Ryan is young enough to be Romney’s son, it is his ideas which thrill the conservative policy wonks. And if Republicans win, it is Ryan’s policies which GOP partisans will demand the new administration push through Congress. So when Romney introduced Ryan today as “the next president of the United States,” it may not have been just a meaningless mistake, caused by the excitement of the occasion. In a the grip of an unconscious fear of being overshadowed by his running mate, Romney may have committed a classic Freudian slip.
Michael Kazin’s latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.