The Changing Power Dynamic Between Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan

When the former presidential nominee sits down with the House Budget Committee chair on Thursday, their standings will be reversed.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Mitt Romney is scheduled to have lunch with President Obama on Thursday. What are the odds a rollicking good time will be had by all?  I'd guess, by comparison, the president's 2009 beer summit with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Crowley will seem like a Delta Tau Chi toga party.

What's more interesting to me is that, on the same day, Mitt Romney will be enjoying a private confab with Paul Ryan. This is clearly a pro forma courtesy call in which very little of substance will be discussed. Aside from all other considerations, Romney's interest in matters of substance, at least as evidenced by his commitment to policy detail or ideological consistency during the campaign, would appear to be casual. Now that he isn't running for president anymore, I expect it's close to de minimus.

Nonetheless, there is an aspect to this second meeting I find oddly compelling. It's arguably one that would be of interest only to novelists, since it is entirely invisible, internal, and speculative. It can't be demonstrated, let alone proved. It will probably occur beneath the level of consciousness even for the participants. It concerns the way they perceive the power relationship between themselves.

The last time the two of them sat down and talked together, both men believed Romney was about to become president of the United States. The age difference and the expectation of the senior partner's unimaginable elevation would have dictated a pronounced deference on the part of the younger man. A well brought-up son of the Midwest, he could reasonably be expected to evince respect for his elders regardless, and as someone who would owe his own sudden elevation, and his future prospects, to the largess of the other, he would have an extra inducement to play the beta role with gusto.

But now, a mere three weeks later, the situation is very different. Romney is a spent force with no political future left to him. In addition, he is judged by his peers, and even his ardent supporters, to have been an incompetent candidate who ran an incompetent campaign that was incompetently managed. Never a figure who inspired affection within his party, he now is regarded with something approaching scorn.

Meanwhile, Ryan probably feels some resentment that, quite early in the campaign, Romney decided that the congressman's ideas --- the same ideas that got him chosen in the first place --- were a little too controversial for public airing, and opted to muzzle him. Ryan probably also feels, rightly or wrongly, that as far as his prospects go, the sky's the limit. Newly famous, praised for his good looks, his unassuming charm, and his putative intellectual seriousness, he might even regard himself as a man of destiny. He might easily view Mitt Romney with condescension. The fellow had his chance and blew it. Blew it badly. Meanwhile, he, Ryan, is pure youthful potential, with vastly increased name recognition, increased stature within his caucus, and an enthusiastic following among the base of his party. He has just been entrusted with leading the House side of negotiations with the White House on avoiding the fiscal cliff. He is part of the House leadership. There is nowhere to go but up.

Mitt Romney has always seemed like a pretty arrogant sort of man, the sort of man who expects to lead any organization of which he is a part, the sort of man who can close down a plant and dismiss an entire workforce without hesitation or qualm. But losing a presidential election, especially losing an election you expected to be a relative cake walk, can probably make a substantial dent in your cockiness. This will be a different Mitt Romney sitting on one side of that table. And he will be facing a different Paul Ryan, or at least a Paul Ryan who views his position in the world, and his position with respect to Mitt Romney, very differently.

Not a word on the subject will be uttered, of course. No hints or allusions will be vouchsafed. It will in no way resemble the overtly hostile confrontation between George McGovern and Thomas Eagleton in 1972, described by Theodore H. White in his book about that year's campaign. But Romney will probably feel a little disoriented, a little unsure of his footing, and he will probably be facing a man who seems much more in command, both of himself and of the situation, than would have seemed possible during the previous five months. The seesawing, subliminal drama of male dominance behavior will be the fascinating subtext of Thursday's tete-a-tete.

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Erik Tarloff is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist.

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