Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney signaled the end of the beginning of this year's campaign with his choice Saturday morning of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, 42, as his running mate. This is a good time to take stock of the campaign, where it stands, and where it is going.
The Ryan choice: Vice-presidential nominees usually make little difference in the final November outcomes. Presidential candidates, before choosing them, usually consult polling data. Such data typically show that presidential nominees run more strongly without running mates than with one. This sometimes results in the selection of cyphers — such as Richard Nixon's selection of Spiro Agnew and George H.W. Bush's selection of Dan Quayle — who are calculatedly chosen because they are little known and unlikely to distract attention from the presidential nominee. Popular presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt, have treated the vice presidency with relative disdain. FDR had three running mates in four presidential elections. Only with his final choice, of Harry Truman in 1944, when FDR's health was failing, did he select someone he regarded as qualified to succeed him.
A worst-case situation develops when the choice for No. 2 hurts the presidential candidate before November. This happened with George McGovern's selection of Tom Eagleton in 1972, Walter Mondale's selection of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin in 2008. Eagleton turned out to have undisclosed mental-health problems. Ferraro's husband turned out to have Mafia ties. Palin turned out to be uninformed and clearly unprepared for higher office. John Kerry could have faced such a problem in 2004 but it was not until several years later that John Edwards' character became fully revealed. Dick Cheney, of course, came to hurt George W. Bush seriously but that happened after, not before, his election in 2000, as Agnew later hurt Nixon.
Occasionally a running mate will make a real difference in the November outcome. In 1960, John Kennedy offered the vice-presidential nomination to Lyndon Johnson, expecting him to turn it down. LBJ accepted, however, and won a razor-close election for JFK by carrying Texas.
The Ryan choice, on balance, should be a good one for Romney. He is well known in the capital and among media as a 14-year congressman noted for his substance and integrity but still is unknown among a majority of the general electorate. As a Catholic generally conservative (but not a crusader) on social issues, he will help energize Repubicans who find Romney too moderate on such issues.
But his primary appeal will be to Republicans (including Tea Partiers), moderate Democrats, and independents whose primary concern is the American financial and economic future. He has been the unquestioned GOP leader in the Congress, and in national debate, in offering specific proposals to reduce deficits and debt, reform the tax code, and regenerate economic growth. His 2012 proposals have played a large role in shaping Romney's and other GOP candidates' proposals and stand in clear contrast to those offered by the Obama White House.
The dueling Ryan and Obama current budget proposals offer a clear choice between priorities and governing philosophies. When the two party conventions have been held, and televised presidential and vice-presidential debaters loom, they no doubt will move to center stage. No other GOP vice-presidential selection would have provided such a focus on the financial/economic issues that usually determine a presidential election, especially in difficult times.
Ryan, in his remarks following his selection, emphasized his family and community roots and then moved to these issues. He did not assume the "attack dog" role often assigned to vice-presidential nominees or mention recent Obama-campaign attacks on Romney. The Obama White House, moments later, issued a highly partisan response, charging Ryan as a would-be destroyer of Medicare and Social Security. (The normal response would have been to gracefully welcome him to the race and to express eagerness to join him in debate on his proposals).
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