When two of the nation’s leading dailies publish major articles on the same sidebar topic on the same day it’s more than a coincidence. The fact that both the New York Times and the Washington Post are both running features about conservative dissatisfaction about the way Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan is being utilized in the campaign can be interpreted as just another mainstream media attempt to find fault with the GOP, and perhaps to produce some juicy signs of distrust between supporters of Romney and Ryan in the manner of the John McCain-Sarah Palin “Game Change” fiasco. But while that aspect of the story must have appealed to editors at both papers, there’s no question that it is primarily a function of the dismay in some precincts of the right about Romney.
Despite the attempts by both papers to entice the two members of the Republican ticket and their staffs to backstab each other, neither the Romney nor the Ryan entourages were willing to play that game. That means there’s no “Game Change” shtick to unravel, which makes both stories less interesting than their headlines promised. The two candidates like and admire each other and Ryan has had no problem playing the traditional veep role of attack dog and surrogate while tempering his own positions on the issues to put forward a united front with the boss. Nor is it fair to say that Ryan has not been properly deployed. He’s been beating the bushes in swing states as he should. What’s really going on here is that a lot of people who like Ryan and his intellectual and ideological strengths are starting to worry that the interests of their man as well as his issues are not necessarily going to be advanced if Romney loses.
That there were enough conservatives willing to go on the record about this and to second-guess Romney in this manner tells us a lot about the continuing lack of love he gets from some of his party’s leading lights. The grousing about Ryan’s place in the campaign ought to be a matter of some concern for Romney and his top strategists since it is sign that some Republicans are already preparing for the aftermath of his defeat in November.
Those like Governor Scott Walker and the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol are not wrong when they advocate for a bolder stance from the GOP campaign on entitlement reform and other issues. But while the addition of the Wisconsin congressman to the ticket was a telling statement about Romney’s love of ideas and his willingness to embrace the reformist wing of the party, it didn’t mean that Ryan was going to be become the centerpiece of the campaign. Nor should he be. Each party gets only one candidate for president and no matter how much the running mate may add to that, the focus must be on the name on the top, not the bottom, of the bumper sticker.
If Romney is being perceived as being not as much of a reformer as Ryan or having, as Jonah Goldberg put it, “retreated into an ideological and even intellectual crouch,” it is not because he is ignoring the Ryan magic or his ideas. It’s because the Republican effort must center on Mitt Romney, and for all of his many strengths and flaws, he is not Paul Ryan and never will be.
As for Paul Ryan’s future, those who worry that his association with what could turn out to be a losing presidential campaign will harm his long-term prospects need to calm down. Accepting the nomination was always something of a gamble. If Romney wins, Ryan will not only be vice president but will be put in position to succeed him. But being on a losing ticket is only a long-term liability if the candidate is perceived as having helped ruin its chances. No matter what happens in the final weeks of the campaign, it isn’t likely that anyone will blame Ryan for Romney losing.
Running with Romney has exposed Ryan to the brickbats of the liberal media attack machine but that isn’t likely to stop him from running for president in 2016 if he is so inclined. It may be that some will think that a future Ryan effort to run on an entitlement reform platform will be compromised by Romney’s somewhat half-hearted embrace of some of his ideas. But if Romney does lose, the odds are that the debt and fiscal crisis will be just as urgent then as it is today.
Win or lose, Paul Ryan is probably going to be a major player in national politics for the foreseeable future. All the griping about the campaign tells us is that more than a few Republicans are scared that Romney is losing. If so, they should spend the next few weeks trying to help him. If their fears are justified, there will be plenty of time to start handicapping 2016 after November.