Why a Paul Ryan VP Selection Wouldn't Add Up for Mitt Romney

Even if he wanted to choose the Wisconsin representative, why would Ryan want to leave his powerful post in the House?


If whispers are any gauge -- and who knows? -- Rep. Paul Ryan seems to have made a late charge into the shortlist for Mitt Romney's vice-presidential nominee. The New Yorker just published a long profile of the Wisconsin wonk, and he scored a high-profile boost over the weekend when The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes and Bill Kristol wrote a plea for either Ryan or Marco Rubio to be the running mate:

The 2010 election was the best for Republicans in a long time. Ryan and Rubio embody the spirit of 2010. [Tim] Pawlenty and [Rob] Portman don't. But beyond all of the calculations -- beyond demography, geography, and the polls -- is the most compelling reason for Romney to pick Ryan or Rubio: Doing so would signal that Romney understands the magnitude of the problems facing the country and would demonstrate that he has the will to solve them.

Still, Ryan seems like a pretty serious long-shot for the spot, and not just because Bill Kristol is almost always wrong about everything (I explained why Rubio, for his part, was an unlikely pick back in May).

With Ryan, the strengths and weaknesses come back to one thing: His sweeping vision of the federal budget. Ryan is the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and he's used that perch to push for serious changes to the government, especially transforming Medicaid into block grants to states and making deep cuts to the federal budget elsewhere. It's that sort of aggressive talk that endears him to people like Kristol (and the conservative base); it also makes him an easy target for the other side, since voters tend to be horrified by deep cuts to entitlements and anything else that entails serious upwards redistribution of wealth.

No one disagrees about this -- the question is how they conduct the cost-benefit analysis. Kristol and Hayes, for example, argue that Romney has already embraced Ryan's budget to such a degree that he might as well go whole-hog, since Democrats will already lump them together. Fellow conservative Byron York, however, counters that while Ryan and Romney agree on many things, the presidential candidate has mostly shied away from the most politically toxic parts of the Ryan plan: "Yes, Romney talks about bringing federal spending under control. But Ryan-like plans to curb entitlement spending? That's just not something Romney emphasizes." Democrats fantasize over the idea of running against Ryan, so Republicans would face an onslaught, but a strong sell on an aggressive platform might be just what Romney needs to close the gap with Obama.

What else would Ryan bring to the table? He's very young -- just 42 years old. Wisconsin remains a likely Obama win, but Republicans have been eying the state since Gov. Scott Walker defeated his recall vote in June, and a Public Policy Polling survey in July found that adding Ryan to the ticket would essentially bring the race to a tie. Like Romney and the other names at the top of his shortlist -- Pawlenty, Portman -- Ryan is a sober, straightforward Midwestern-born white guy with a head for numbers and good hair. Like them, he wouldn't add much in the foreign policy department. And he's never run in any constituency larger his congressional district, which centers on a town where his family has been prominent for generations. While he might be a very effective nationwide campaigner, he's simply not proven.

Perhaps a more important question than whether Romney would want Ryan is whether Ryan would have any interest in the job. Even though Dick Cheney and Joe Biden have both expanded the power of the vice presidency, it remains a somewhat impotent job. It's also significant that Cheney and Biden have gained that power largely through their foreign-policy know-how; there's not really any precedent for the vice president leading a major overhaul of the federal budget. Meanwhile, Ryan has managed to obtain a position of great power from his perch in the House; his seat is safe, and he is the undisputed GOP budget king. Why leave such a sinecure? He's young enough that he'll still have plenty of shots at the White House, cabinet, or Senate if he wants them, whereas it's unclear where he'd go after four or eight years as VP.

There is one possible reason he might do it, if offered the chance. House Republicans installed term limits for chairs and ranking members of committees when they took over in 1994. Ryan, having served as ranking member since 2006, is term-limited after this year. He has said he hopes someday to leader the powerful Ways and Means Committee, but its current chair, Michigan's Dave Camp, doesn't reach his limit until 2014. GOP leaders could grant Ryan a waiver through 2014 to keep him in his current spot; that's something they've been reluctant to do, but given Ryan's status within the party, they might make an exception.

Romney and Ryan have spent some time stumping together and Romney's willingness to praise the Ryan plan shows he's not terrified about its political risks. But overall, the Ryan buzz -- not unlike his budget -- just doesn't completely add up.