Caving to a chorus of conservative voices, including the Wall Street Journal, Mitt Romney abdicated his presidential candidacy in favor of the current darling of the hard Right, Paul Ryan. Although Romney remains the nominal head of the Republican ticket, the race is now between President Obama and Representative Ryan.
Vice presidential selections are generally based upon shoring up the top of the ticket. Dynamic San Juan Hill hero, Teddy Roosevelt, was paired to the wooden William McKinley to add color to the campaign. Richard Nixon was tagged to be the Eisenhower attack dog. LBJ was JFK’s nod of reassurance to conservative Southern Democrats. Sarah Palin was supposed to mobilize the women’s vote but became the inadvertent comic relief to the tragic McCain campaign.
While Bill Clinton supposedly selected Al Gore as his “partner in the presidency,” to date no party has ever picked a vice presidential candidate to actually replace the man at the top of the ticket. Until now.
We will never know the real reasons Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan, but it was a choice that reflected desperation rather than inspiration.
Romney’s recent European junket was supposed to showcase his abilities to play on the world stage. Instead Romney embarrassed himself at almost every opportunity.
Gratuitously criticizing our British ally over Olympic security, Romney suffered the withering response of Conservative Prime Minister Cameron. Cameron cattily reminded the world that holding the Olympics in London was not like holding the Games in the “middle of nowhere,” a dissing of Romney’s leadership of the Salt Lake City Games.
In the Middle East, Romney managed to offend most of the Third World with his comment about cultural superiority being the reason that Israel’s economy outpaced the impoverished Palestinians. He then went on to pander at every stop in the Promised Land, committing the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem and indicating that he would allow saber rattling Prime Minister Netanyahu to set U.S. policy in the region.
Returning to find anemic polling numbers, it looked like Romney was poised to select moderate Ohio Senator John Portman as his running mate. Conventional wisdom was that Portman was an intelligent, relatively non-ideological Senator from a crucial swing state that would have appeal to the narrowing number of independents and moderates who are undecided in the race.
But Republican conservatives don’t subscribe to conventional wisdom. They wanted a true believer. Portman was viewed with suspicion by conservatives who already believed that Romney was a closet moderate who would abandon their principles once he entered the White House.
In retrospect the leaks that Portman was to be the choice may have been a desperate last ditch effort by Republican Party leaders and consultants to quell the insurgency on the Right.
Instead of a move toward the center, we have witnessed a self-inflicted coup against the Republican standard bearer.
In the week since Ryan’s selection, it has become clear that he is the leader and star of the Republican ticket. The public and the press are focused on the Ryan budget and his views on government, leaving Mitt Romney to appear to be something of an afterthought.
While Romney impotently pouted that any budget under his Administration would be a Romney budget with Ryan features, no one was buying it. It is pretty clear that Ryan is generating the excitement and it is Ryan that Republicans are looking to for leadership.
Romney’s need to placate the Republican Right has limited his appeal to independents and has recalibrated the equation of the race. It appears that the Republicans are not interested in making any concessions to moderate or independents but instead are hoping to close the gap by mobilizing their conservative base.
While religious conservatives of the Republican right have been happy to accept the organizational and financial support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as seen in Prop. 8 and its progeny, they have remained deeply wary of Romney’s Mormon faith.
At the end of the day, religious conservatives don’t believe Mormons are Christians. The aggressive and well funded Mormon missionary program is both the envy and fear of Christian conservatives. Deep down they are uncomfortable with providing the Mormon Church with the legitimacy gained by having a Mormon in the White House.
Romney, a Mormon with no real conservative bona fides, was not exactly inspiring the Republican base. His choice of Paul Ryan is an admission that he cannot move to the center when he has a mutinous right flank. Since Romney has essentially been an ideological cipher, Ryan is simply moving into the void. Power abhors a vacuum.
The press has been somewhat reticent to expose the obvious. The Los Angeles Times has described how Romney has “re-centered” his campaign, re-calibrating to promote and defend the Ryan budget and Medicare plan. The focus is no longer President Obama’s job performance but Paul Ryan. It is unprecedented that a Presidential campaign would revolve around the ideology of the vice presidential candidate. Romney has been reduced to a figurehead in his own campaign.
In Florida, that focus on Ryan has not been good. Suddenly white people over 65, the last bulwark of the Republican Party, are talking about Medicare and Ryan’s voucher program. We all know what that’s about. Once the Republicans give us vouchers, the next thing they will do is cut them.
It is just the first step toward ending a social welfare program that hard core conservatives have always hated. Florida, that was leaning Republican, is now up for grabs, which means white seniors may have reason to reassess their allegiance to the Republican ticket.
Now the focus is on the Ryan budget that guts social services while expanding military spending and won’t eliminate the deficit for another 38 years. Most pundits think that is a conversation that Republicans should have avoided. Indeed, by this weekend the Romney campaign was complaining that the press was beating up Ryan.
Ironically, even if Romney wins, it is not clear he will ever be able to establish a firm hold on his own presidency. Clearly the Party’s allegiance will be to Ryan, who will be viewed as both the Republican ideological savior and the crown prince.
Romney may find himself in the same position as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He may be head of state but the ayatollahs of the right will have the ultimate power.