Did Romney Pick Ryan for His Symbolic Value?

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Mitt Romney is trying to appropriate his running mate's wonky, fresh-faced image without having to own Ryan's policies.

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The initial consensus on Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate was that his decision was bold. Left and right agreed it was an unusual, aggressive choice, allying Romney with the intellectual leader of today's conservative House GOP. There was just one problem: Ryan's policy plans, especially for Social Security and Medicare, have proved manifestly unpopular. So what was Romney doing?

It looks increasingly like the answer is this: Adopting the Ryan style while putting Ryan forward as a fresh-faced attack dog -- and muffling or totally throwing out his policy stances. The Associated Press' Steve Peoples had this report from the trail over the weekend:

But Ryan has been directed to avoid taking questions from reporters who travel with him, and to agree only to a few carefully selected interviews .... Romney hopes that Ryan's conservative credentials and his boyish enthusiasm will help him solidify support from the base of his party and close the "likability gap" with President Barack Obama, who remains relatively popular in spite of the nation's struggling economy.

We can see clear evidence of this in the last week. Take the famed $716 billion in Medicare spending that Obamacare cuts. (NB: The cutcut involves a projected slower rate of growth in reimbursements to providers, not reduced benefits for seniors.) Ryan originally included that $716 billion reduction in his Roadmap to Prosperity, even while assuming that the rest of Obamacare would be repealed. Now, however, Ryan says his views have "evolved" on the matter and he agrees with Romney that Medicare spending should revert to pre-Obamacare form. In another case, the Romney campaign says that Ryan agrees with Romney that abortion should be legal in cases of rape, although Ryan previously co-sponsored a bill (along with Rep. Todd Akin) that sought to narrow the rape exemption in the ban on federal funding for abortion, and has long said he opposes abortion even in cases of rape.

Meanwhile, as Peoples notes, Romney has taken over the role of wonk-in-chief for his campaign, campaigning with a whiteboard on which he loosely sketched out his own entitlement-reform plans. But where the Ryan plan was bedeviled by its details, Romney totally eschewed any specifics, as Ginger Gibson reported. In the words of The Atlantic Wire's Elspeth Reeve, "Just because a campaign's talking points were written on a thing used to show details doesn't mean actual details were shown."

The whiteboard incident is a microcosm of how the Romney campaign is seeking to appropriate Ryan's image as a vigorous, problem-solving wonk, without having to reckon with the messy and unpopular details of his plans. If Romney wins the presidential election, it will prove that he pulled it off.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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