While most of us are focusing on the obvious impact Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick might have on the 2012 election, a feature in Politico today highlights the fact that his choice may influence future elections as well. Choosing someone like Paul Ryan, who is not only young, but the intellectual leader of his party, could well set the Wisconsin congressman up as the putative frontrunner in subsequent presidential elections whether or not the 2012 ticket is successful.
The debate about the vice presidential pick is, as Politico notes, something of a stand in for the broader argument about the future of the Republican Party. Should Romney go with Ryan it could mean that the reformist wing of the party will not only get a boost but have its leader put in a position from which he may well dominate the party. On the other hand, picking a more conventional figure like Sen. Rob Portman would serve as a brake on the conservative thinkers who want to help change Washington. The elevation of Ryan could, as Rep. Tom Cole tells Politico, be akin to Ronald Reagan choosing Jack Kemp as his running mate in 1980 rather than establishment favorite George H.W. Bush. Had Reagan tapped Kemp, it is probable that neither the elder nor the younger Bush would have ever been president. It is impossible to say in such a counter-factual scenario how else history would have been changed, but it is a reminder that there’s a lot more at stake in this decision than the impact on this November or even who will be presiding over the Senate next year.
Of course, it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which this picture of a rosy Ryan future is derailed. Ryan could prove a flop on the national stage, though given his experience in the Washington maelstrom as the center of debates on the budget and entitlement reform that seems unlikely. A greater danger is that as a vice presidential candidate Ryan would be the focus of an intense Democratic campaign whose intent would be to demonize him and brand both Romney and the Republican party as villains intent on pushing grandma off the cliff. The toll such Mediscare tactics may exact on the GOP should not be underestimated, and that may explain the reluctance on the part of many Republicans to endorse Ryan as a possible veep.
But though Democrats may be as excited about a Ryan pick as some Republicans, he should not be underestimated. Ryan will be a formidable asset for Romney, and even Republicans who are leery about him may change their minds once they take a closer look and see how his serious approach can connect with voters. Indeed, here the comparison with Kemp may be instructive. Kemp was the favorite of supply side conservatives and an admirable man whom many believed was destined for the White House. But, as even he admitted, he had already had his dream job — as an NFL quarterback — and he may have lacked the fire to get to the top in politics. Bob Dole would pick Kemp as his veep choice in 1996, but there was nothing the former QB could do to inject life into that hopeless attempt to defeat Bill Clinton. Ryan is as knowledgeable as Kemp was about tax and budget issues but appears to be more focused on what it takes to succeed in Washington.
Ryan is, according to Chuck Todd of NBC News, one of the three finalists in the GOP veep race along with Portman and Tim Pawlenty. We don’t really know how any of them will play this fall, but there’s little doubt that Ryan is the choice that brings with it the most risk as well as the most reward for Romney. But if Ryan is the choice, it will not only place him at the head of the line as a presidential nominee in 2016 or 2020 (depending on whether Romney wins) but will give the ideas he stands for a bigger audience. For those who believe the nation’s future rests on our willingness to listen to voices of reason like Ryan who understand that entitlements must be reformed, there is more resting on Romney’s decision than the pundits may think.