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).
The campaign tone: The White House rip at Ryan was the most recent in a series of official and unofficial Obama-campaign attacks not focusing on alternative policy propoals but instead attempting to portray Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy probably not paying his taxes (Romney had paid no taxes "in 10 years," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid charged, without citing any source for his charge); killing American jobs through his role at Bain Capital; wanting to cut taxes for the wealthy; and posing threats to women, Latinos, African Americans, union members, senior citizens, and other constituencies important in November. Romney's wife (gasp!) even owns horses and luxury cars.
I have been dismayed by the low-politics demagogy present in many of the attacks but not surprised by the general thrust of the early Democratic campaign: That is, to define Romney for voters before Romney can fully define himself.
The economy remains shaky. Foreign policy/national security is a problematic subject. In such circumstances, the school solution is to make the opposing candidate, not the incumbent, the issue. Even relatively secure incumbents try to make this happen.
The classic case was in 1964 when the Johnson-Humphrey campaign successfully characterized Barry Goldwater as a foreign policy/domestic policy/economic policy extremist before the campaign began, thus placing him on the defensive until November. Bill Clinton did the same to hapless Bob Dole in 1996, charging him with "trying to destroy Social Security and Medicare" in his role as Senate Republican leader, even though Clinton earlier had praised bipartisan entitlement-reform efforts in which Dole had been involved. In 1988, Mike Dukakis was defined destructively, quite early in the campaign, by commercials which linked him to the furlough of a convict, Willie Horton, who subsequently had committed murder. The same happened to Kerry in 2004 with the Swift Boat commercials challenging his Vietnam War record.
The tactics worked. And the current tactics appear to have worked against Romney. The Obama campaign has thus far outspent the Romney campaign, with much of the money going into such attack commercials in battleground states where the numbers have shifted 5-8 points in Obama's direction over the last month.
Romney, as was the case with some predecessors on the receiving end of such attacks, has seemed unable to respond quickly or effectively. One presumes that, in time, he will do so. But, at least for now, he is a challenger on the defensive while the incumbent is the aggressor — the opposite of the situation he should want.
The November outcome: No incumbent president except FDR has ever been reelected with an unemployment rate above 7.8 percent in an election year. Millions of Americans remain underwater on their mortgages. The poverty rate is at a post-World War II high. Long-term debt continues to mount. Businesses hesitate to invest or make new hires until they get a better sense of post-election national policy. All of those things normally would point to a Romney victory.
Internationally, voters want a quicker pullout from Afghanistan than the president has proposed. But Romney, in general, is on Obama's hawkish side on offshore issues. Both candidates have shied away from them. No advantage there for either candidate.
But the force of Obama's offensive, and the hesitant nature of Romney's response, has changed expectations. The only poll numbers I am watching now are Obama's favorable/unfavorable ratings. Matchup numbers will mean little until the fall. Hubert Humphrey entered his campaign against Richard Nixon in 1968 some 15 points behind Nixon, but lost by an eyelash. Dukakis led George H. W. Bush by 18 points at the same Labor Day juncture but, in the end, lost in a landslide.
Present numbers show partisans on both the Democratic and Republican sides already decided on their November choices, with only 5-10 percent of the electorate, mainly independents, still truly undecided. But that 5-10 percent, if and when it shifts, can be decisive. And I do not fully trust data showing little prospective movement among nominal partisans.
Independent voters, it should be said, are not necessarily suburban, well-educated folk who "vote for the person, not for the party" after weighing the candidacies throughout the campaign. Many are independent because they don't closely follow public issues. They can be Tea Partiers, Reagan Democrats, Ross Perot and George Wallace voters, as well as chablis-sipping Bellevue good-government types.
Bottom line: The fundamentals favor Romney but Obama, thus far, has maintained the initiative and kept Romney off balance. Ryan is a serious public servant, not easily painted as privileged or a goofball, and should help Romney. Obama and his team are the most aggressive, take-no-prisoners campaigners I have seen over a lifetime in politics. I fully expect a photo finish in November which, perhaps, will be influenced by now-unforeseen economic or foreign-policy events between now and then. Ryan's addition to Romney's ticket really does make this a choice between starkly different governing ideologies as well as between candidates.
As of today, the qualifying rounds are ending and the medal round is just around the corner.