Regardless your personal feelings about Paul Ryan (R-WI), two things clearly came to the fore with his speech last night:
First, the man is a much more polished politician than his naysayers would have you believe.
Second, mainstream media analysts be damned, he’s perfectly comfortable being Mitt Romney’s pit bull.
The traditional roles for the Vice Presidential nominee are simple. They should deliver his home state’s electoral votes to the party’s nominee. And they should be able to attack the other party’s nominee, without seeming impossibly mean-spirited. Four years ago, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin got the nod in what was one of the most curious choices ever made by a Presidential candidate. Alaska is a solid Republican state, so Mrs. Palin wasn’t going to deliver an additional 3 electoral votes that John McCain likely didn’t already have. While she proved a willing attacker of all things Democrat (and that includes, to this day, Barack Obama), she always seemed…snarky is probably the best way to describe it.
Ryan, on the other hand, may prove to a much more capable VP pick. Even before his speech last night, his selection helped turn what has been a traditional bastion of Democrat electors into a battleground state. (Both CBS/NYT and PPP latest polling in Wisconsin has the Presidential race as statistical tie, where once the President had a commanding 11 point lead). But what may prove even more dire for Mr. Obama’s re-election chances is the way Mr. Ryan demonstrated that you can attack even a likable candidate on pure policy issues, and do so in a way that makes the target still seem likable – but hopelessly inept.
Time and again in his speech, Mr. Ryan pointed out the failures of the current administration in terms of policy: a ragged economy, a sense of hope lost and a looming fiscal crisis that has been worsened by profligate spending and partisanship. Yet at the same time, Mr. Ryan did not attack the President as person. Indeed, he praised Mr. Obama’s rhetoric and ability to connect with voters. In a line certain to get considerable airplay in a commercial near you, he said:
“College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”
That one statement provides a stark contrast between Senator Barack Obama in 2008 and President Barack Obama in 2012. In 2008, those millions of college freshmen turned out in droves to vote for the senator. In 2012, they are now recent graduates – unable to put their degrees to work, living back home with their parents and thoroughly disillusioned with their former champion.
There were other great soundbites as well (imagine a political speech without a soundbite!). My personal favorite was this, just a few moments later in talking about his beginnings:
“When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That’s what we do in this country. That’s the American Dream. That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.”
For me, that statement IS what the subcontext of this election is about. What is the “American Dream?” Is it, as Mr. Ryan describes, the pursuit of one’s individual goals and the freedom to make them a reality? Or is it, as described by Mr. Obama, the assurance of an equal experience for all Americans, regardless of innate abilities, talents and desires?
If the Republicans succeed in framing the 2012 election in this context – and not Mr. Obama’s preferred context of blame the other guy, rich vs. poor – then I believe they will also win this election. In Mr. Ryan, they found a capable point man, one the Democrats should fear over the next 70 days.