Ask Dr. Popkin: What About the Ryan Pick?

A few months ago I began checking in with Samuel Popkin, a longtime political scholar at UC San Diego (and longtime friend), and author of a recent book on how presidents position themselves for re-election campaigns, The Candidate. For some previous installments, see this, this, and this.

Yesterday I asked him about the choice of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate. Crazy? (Because it forces Romney into detailed defense of the "Ryan budget," rather than generalized attacks on economic stagnation in the Obama years.) Or crazy like a fox? (Because it re-energizes the campaign, gets Romney off what seemed to be a descending trajectory, introduces an appealing new face for the party, etc.)

Here is Popkin's reply just now. I have called out quotable nuggets called out for emphasis: 

Jim --
The choice of Paul Ryan confirms that the main issue for Republicans is their party's identity, not Romney's character, competence of personality.
This is a very parliamentary choice.  It confirms that the Republican Tea Party  insurgents of 2010 have the activist and donor firepower in the party.  Romney started his plans for 2012 by first attacking the Detroit bailout as too soft on unions, and then openly touting his Massachusetts healthcare plan as the answer to cost containment.  He then had to repudiate his own plan, praise the Ryan budget and maintain hard lines on immigration, contraception and defense to get through the primaries.

The Ryan choice, first of all, gives Romney control of the Republican convention.  Rick Santorum hardly matters now with a more articulate, younger, moral and fiscal voice on the ticket, one who has an passionate following in the House.  Newt Gingrich is now just another aging blabbermouth.  And all of the mega-buck Super PACs fighting to protect their tax cuts must be thrilled.
Second, Ryan is the strongest and most articulate defender of the Ryan budget.  Obama and many Democratic congressmen are already running against the House Budget and one way or the other Romney was going to have to come up with some specifics.  If Ryan were not on the ticket, he would be a loose cannon, defending his plans and future power base in Congress. Now Ryan's future is Romney's future.* As LBJ once said of J Edgar Hoover: better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.

The choice of Ryan, finally, confirms that Obama, with major assistance from the Republican party and the Romney campaign, has captured the center on social issues and painted Romney into a corner.   When the president took a personal stand on gay marriage, the Republican party was mostly silent.  It will hardly be mentioned at the Republican convention, eight years after the party gleefully championed ballot measures all over the country to boost turnout from their base.  Then, when the president announced a directive on immigration, the best Senator Marco Rubio could say was "The White House never called us about this, no one reached out to us and told us this was on its way."
Nate Silver's analysis at his Fivethirtyeight Blog is that Obama is in the driver's seat in this election despite the painfully slow economic recovery.  Republican strategists have known for years that they needed to moderate their positions on gay marriage and immigration if they were going to stay competitive nationally over the long run. President George W Bush fought hard to pass moderate immigration reform. And note his unwillingness to condemn homosexuality and/or even promise to fire gay staffers.
Whenever you hear politicians say the problem is the candidate, that it's not about the party, you can be sure it is about the party.   Most of the complaints about Mitt Romney were activists trying to scapegoat him for problems with the party.  Take the calls for him to release his tax returns, for example.  How would it strengthen the case for tax breaks for the wealthy to release returns where he is almost certain to have paid less taxes than he paid in the returns he released after closing offshore accounts?

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush must be very relieved that he has already made clear his alienation from the move farther right in the party on economic and social issues.  The future of the party is almost certainly going to lie with governors who have had to deal with the actual problems of managing health, education and welfare systems in a country with growing number of senior citizens as well as growing numbers of minority voters and same-sex couples. 

If President Obama wins, Democrats should give some credit to Walter Mondale for the honorable race he ran in 1984.  After his defeat, no one could say it was the messenger not the message at fault.  That defeat provided the impetus for governors like Bill Clinton to work with the Democratic Leadership Council to find new approaches to old issues and bridge racial and economic divides.    

* I'll want to follow up on this point and the longer-term implications for the party if the Romney-Ryan team ends up losing. A big difference between Romney-Ryan 2012 and Mondale-Ferraro 1984 is that Walter Mondale was at the top of his ticket. With Ryan at the bottom, it is very easy to imagine his partisans saying, after a defeat, that if only the party had run unashamedly with him and on his platform from the beginning they would have won. If Romney is elected, he of course becomes the head of the party, the country, and for that matter the Free World. But many people are already suggesting that if he loses, Paul Ryan immediately becomes the de facto head of the party and an early favorite the next time round. To that extent, his future interests and Romney's diverge.

That's for another time. For now, interesting points about this choice.

UPDATE: Samuel Popkin writes back on this follow-up question, about whether a Romney-Ryan defeat would -- in contrast to the Democrats' forced self-examination after the Mondale-Ferraro defeat in 1984 -- embolden the party to offer an even purer brand of conservatism.

I think that is right on the money. Mondale's defeat was a clear defeat for the Democratic Party message in the 1984 presidential election. A Romney defeat is guaranteed to start a civil war. 

Elected Republicans and activists whose personal brand name would become outmoded if the party abandons a strict Grover Norquist anti-tax position or the orthodox social conservative positions would resist change as many Democratic liberals did. The moderates would be joined by some but not all Tea Party supporters, and the 2016 presidential primary battle is certain to be long and bloody. 

It is hard for politicians to persuade voters that their values are constant when their positions change. "Righteous rectification," revising an old stand to explain discrepancies between what you practiced then and what you preach now requires foresight and hard work. You have to explain how the new situation has caused you to revise your position, but not your core values.

Senator Arthur Vandenberg became a hero when he converted from isolationism to internationalism; George Wallace moved from integrationist to segregationist and then back to integrationist.  Robert Kennedy moved from hard-line cold warrior to anti-war champion; and Ronald Reagan moved from far left to the right, and then championed détente with Mikhail Gorbachev. In each of these cases the convert faced a long, nasty intra-party battle after his change of positions.