With his choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate, we are seeing a replay of the 2008 race. Last time John McCain was trailing steadily in the polls and not able to break through. He gambled on a young woman with strongly conservative views as his running mate, hoping that a fresh face might galvanize his lukewarm supporters and draw in sufficient new ones to win.
Almost immediately after the Palin selection I wrote that it is always dangerous to introduce a relatively unknown person onto the national stage as part of a presidential ticket because the scrutiny they and their families will face will be unlike anything they have faced before and all manner of potentially embarrassing things will come to light. While those things may well be explainable away, they do put the ticket on the defensive. I said then that the Palin choice “risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama” and that is pretty much what happened. Palin and her background became the story, obscuring McCain.
Romney is a more cautious person than McCain so he hasn’t gambled as wildly. For one thing, Ryan is nowhere near as obscure as Palin. Although he is as young as she was when she was selected (he is 42 and Palin was 44), he has been a member of congress since 1999. But he has come into some national prominence only since 2011 when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and he became chair of the powerful budget committee. But while not as unknown as Palin was, the scrutiny he will now face are orders of magnitude greater that what he has faced before, when only his budget policies were being examined.
After all, look at what happened with Mitt Romney. He has been in the national spotlight since he first started running for the presidency around 2007 and was well known nationally long before the current election began. You would think that he would have been a familiar and well-examined figure by now with no new embarrassing revelations to be had in his background. But it was only after he clinched the nomination around April of this year that his past really came under the microscope and all the baggage about his business practices and his taxes were unearthed. He is still trying to bat them down, not at all successfully.
Similarly expect the next month or so to result in a steady stream of ‘revelations’ about Ryan, ranging from the trivial to serious questions about his politics and his philosophy, such as his enthusiasm for Ayn Rand. Ryan supporters are anticipating the attacks to come and are already playing defense, trying to distance him from his past enthusiasm for Rand. He has been an outspoken ideologue and will now be faced with the task of defending extreme things he said when few were paying attention or walking them back.
His controversial budget plan (which among other things will give an additional $265,000 tax break to millionaires) will also come under much greater scrutiny than before and he will have to explain away its radical implications, not to mention the highly dubious mathematics on which it is based. The one sure thing that Romney has achieved with the Ryan pick is to have totally locked up the millionaire vote.
And there will be Ryan’s private life, carefully picked over for any small detail. The people I feel sorry for are the members of his family because their lives are going to be suddenly turned upside down.
Romney’s choice, while not as much of an obvious risk as McCain’s, is still a gamble. The fact that he felt compelled, of all the people at his disposal, to pick the candidate least known nationally and most favored by the extremist and the Tea Party wings of his party, reveals that he feels the same sense of weakness that McCain felt at this stage last time around, and that his campaign needed a shot of adrenaline. This is not a sound basis for picking a running mate. As is usual with such shots, the boost it provides is temporary and the spotlight surely will come back to him, his past, and his taxes. The best he can hope for is that it shifts the spotlight away from the battering he has received in the last month.
The vice-presidential choice is significant mainly for what it says about the state of the campaign and the state of mind of the presidential nominee. Barack Obama in 2008 felt he could pick someone who was easily the most familiar and boring of all his options because he felt that the election was his for the taking and he did not want to blow it with a risky pick of an unknown. Romney now, like McCain in 2008, seems to think the election is lost unless he does something dramatic and is clearly hoping that his running mate will drag him across the finish line first.
It’s a very long shot.