The Ryan Selection: Game Change, Part Deux

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It's good for the country that Romney has chosen Ryan, because it means we're going to be discussing policy for a while. I didn't see that coming. Whether it's good for Romney's chances is another matter, because it means we're going to be discussing policy for a while.

Has there been another presidential election where the choice of running mate amounted to the wholesale adoption of a detailed domestic program? That's what we have. In a friendly acquisition, the Romney campaign has absorbed at a stroke all the capital of Ryan's budget plan, and even seems to be positioning Ryan as chief operating officer of the new conglomerate. (Mike Allen says, "Romney officials refer to Ryan as the partner--someone who would work closely with Romney as he governs, and have partial ownership of the first 100 days' accomplishments.")

This is a questionable political strategy for Romney, even before you get to the merits and demerits of Ryan's budget plan. Surely the question arises, with Ryan on the ticket, what's Romney for? To be the proud parent? Don't tell me he's planning to concentrate on foreign policy. (Though, come to think of it, somebody will have to.)

In general, if you're running for president, there's a reason you want a nonentity running with you. If your sidekick turns out to be arrestingly terrible, you're sunk. (No recent example comes to mind... Still, I think the point stands.) If he's brilliant, on the other hand, he diminishes you. Beating your opponent is hard enough without having to compete against your own side. So the risk in having a veep-to-be who makes a big impression, good or bad, is mostly on the downside. That's why it's traditional to look for a Joe Biden. Putting the nonentity at the top of the ticket, assisted by the guy with all the main ideas--that's confusing. Mr Romney, what do you intend for Medicare? Ask Paul Ryan, he's the expert.

You might say, at the top of the ticket, what's done is done--so better one nonentity than two. That depends. Romney has failed up to now to define himself, and his choice solves that problem: He's set aside his expired credentials as a moderate and affirmed his promise to be a severe conservative. This will energize both bases and help swing voters make up their minds. Net, I think this will be to Romney's disadvantage, even though Ryan is an interesting and effective politician. The energy deficit was mostly on the Democrats' side, and Romney just narrowed the gap. As for swing voters, they'll find Romney-Ryan scarier than, say, Romney-Portman. (Their problem with Romney wasn't that he was too centrist.) In addition this gives Obama the space to move a step or two back to the center, if he has the wit to do that.

In all, I'm surprised by Romney's choice not just because it's adventurous, or because the partnership with Ryan will be difficult to manage, or because questions will arise about Ryan's fitness to be president, but mostly because I think such a decisive move to the right will hurt Romney's chances.

In any event, the electorate has a sharper choice than before. Compared to the alternative, Obama is offering a more generous safety net, more investment in infrastructure, higher taxes (especially for the rich), and a larger role for government in the economy. Romney, again compared to the alternative, is now more plainly offering less provision for the poor, less public investment, lower taxes (especially for the rich), and a smaller role for government.

It's a clear choice, to be sure, but forgive me for saying in many ways also a false choice, so let's not get carried away. What the Democrats are offering can't be done: You can't spend as they say they'll spend without increasing everybody's taxes. And although what the Republicans are promising could be done, it won't be: The spending cuts they envisage are arithmetically possible but so severe they're politically impossible, supposing the GOP ever gets the chance to try.

Arguing over choices that can't or won't be implemented is still a big improvement over debating Obama's supposed contempt for effort and Romney's supposed criminality. It could actually shed some light on trade-offs. Here's one. Are middle-class Americans willing to pay somewhat higher taxes in return for more public goods and better social protection? That would be an interesting thing to know, finally. Maybe this election will help the country make up its mind.

Ryan or no Ryan, there's a limit to what this contest can resolve--short of a landslide and both houses of Congress lining up with the new administration. (Remember, campaigning for 2014 starts in December, something to look forward to.) The Great Debate will never be settled. Still, a decisive Obama victory over Romney-Ryan, or vice versa, following an animated debate about policies as well as personalities, would give the country a short, sharp push in one direction or the other. Ryan on the ticket makes the election a bigger deal than it was yesterday. I'm for that.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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