When Things Change

It was the August weekend where everything changed. Yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates finally salvaged one game from the hapless visiting San Diego Padres but they did it in style – coming back from being five runs down with their own eleven late runs, with a grand-slam thrown in the mix and everything. That nineteen-year losing streak – the longest in any of the four major professional North American sports leagues – could be over. You never know. After all, this year, to everyone’s surprise, the Pirates have been bumping up against first place over and over again. Something has changed, or could be changing. Sure, one heroic August come-back game may mean nothing in a long season that runs to October, and the Dodgers flew in Sunday night for three games starting Monday, but it may mean something. Maybe the whole dynamic has changed. If you grew up in Pittsburgh long ago, when the Pirates were always pretty damned good, you do hope so. Maybe one weekend in August can change everything. Oh, and the same weekend Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate. It was the same sort of thing. The dynamic of the race changed, although whether a grand-slam was involved remains to be seen.

This is trouble for the Democrats. Paul Ryan is young and dynamic and photogenic and pleasant enough, and he clearly believes everything he says and will talk about it openly and without hesitation. He’s everything the wooden and puzzling Mitt Romney is not – except for the photogenic part. Romney does look presidential. Maybe it’s the hair. But the Republican base never trusted him. Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has pointed out that the right doesn’t trust Mitt Romney’s instincts on any subject save business-friendliness and taxes:

Neoconservatives worry that Romney’s instincts are more George H.W. Bush than John Bolton. Social conservatives worry that Romney’s instinct is to dispassionately take the politically advantageous stance on abortion. Small government conservatives know his instinct was to enact Romneycare. Libertarian-leaning conservatives worry that his instinct is to be a corporatist. Populists worry that he’s an Ivy League educated financier at heart. Aside from Romney’s affection for Mormonism and big business, both of which seem genuine, is there any position the man wouldn’t abandon or embrace if it would win him the White House? The regularity with which he’s changed positions and his rhetorical zealousness both before and after his “conversions” give the impression he’s severely malleable. That’s what a lot of Republicans thought during the primaries.

Mitt was always a problem:

Conservatives want to beat Obama so badly that they’re forcing themselves to push hard for a man many of them neither like nor trust, all the while trying to box him into a right-wing agenda he’ll never implement. Hence the insistence that he embrace Paul Ryan’s budget and even put the Wisconsin Republican on the ticket.

Mitt gave in. He did just that, and they’re happy now. And the Democrats seem happy too, but they shouldn’t be. Romney had been the perfect cartoon-clueless One Percent guy – the guy with no common touch at all, but who was great friends with those who are NASCAR team owners. Romney had been basically running on the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule – and he also was the man who gleefully told everyone his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs and who is building a house out here in La Jolla with an elevator for those. He was an easy target.

Ryan is not an easy target at all. He may believe the same things about the rich but he’s not one of them and he’s certainly not clueless. Democrats should not underestimate him. They’ll have to run against his ideas, not against the man. The man himself seems to be a nice guy – and he’s also quite self-aware, damn it. Democrats got off easy with Sarah Palin, the woman who was all jingoistic aggressiveness but knew little about anything, and often didn’t seem to know what she did know. She looked damned good and could go for the jugular with the best of them but she turned out to be a joke. Tina Fey destroyed Sarah Palin, but if Tina Fey hadn’t someone else surely would have – it was almost too easy. Now the folks at Saturday Night Live have a problem. Paul Ryan probably can’t be turned into joke – he’s not prone to pretending simplistic nonsense is deep insight. And unlike Romney, Ryan’s the guy in the room who gets the joke immediately and smiles, like Obama. That’s no fun. Republicans don’t make the same mistake twice.

This changes things. Mitt, the clueless One Percent wooden cartoon figure, can fade into the background now as the real target emerges:

Making his first public remarks since Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate President Barack Obama gave a double-edged welcome to the new Republican vice presidential nominee, indicating how he seeks to define the new ticket for the remainder of the election.

Speaking to a crowd of young supporters at the Bridgeport Art Center here, Obama said Mitt Romney’s theories of “top-down economics” were apparent in his vice presidential pick of Ryan, the architect of a controversial deficit-reduction budget proposal that includes restructuring Medicare into a “premium support” or voucher system.

It’s time to talk about ideas, not cartoon characters:

“Just yesterday morning, my opponent chose his running mate – the ideological leader of the Republicans in Congress,” he said, seeking to fuse Ryan’s economic views – mostly admired in conservative circles but also viewed by some as radical – with Romney’s.

“My opponent and Congressman Ryan and their allies in Congress, they all believe that if we just get rid of more regulations on big corporations and we give more tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, it will lead to jobs and prosperity for everybody else. That’s what they’re proposing. That’s where they’ll take us if they win,” he said.

That’s what changed:

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Obama, summed up the choice to pick Ryan on NBC’s Meet the Press: “I think that it clarifies the choice for the American people. And I think it clarifies the choice in a way that is going to be helpful.”

Now it’s time to drop the cartoon stuff:

The crowd started to boo at the first mention of Ryan but Obama urged them to hold their jeers, stressing that his disagreements with the Republican vice presidential hopeful are policy-based, not personal. “I want to congratulate Congressman Ryan,” Obama said. “I know him. I welcome him to the race. Congressman Ryan is a decent man; he is a family man.”

Obama simply disagrees with him, and in modern America, where with voters it’s all about personality and no one really considers boring policy stuff, the Democrats just lost their most useful weapon. People consider personalities and little else.

This is asking for a change in what people focus on, and Matthew Yglesias is worried even Obama’s refocus is dangerous:

Focusing attention on the big-picture disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about long-term fiscal policy means we won’t be focusing attention on what ought to be the most pressing economic policy issue of our time – mass unemployment and the tragic waste of human and economic potential it represents. To be sure, politicians will still talk about this. But obviously Obama would prefer at this point to talk about long-term vision and the contrast between his “balanced approach” and the GOP’s cut-cut-cut approach. With Ryan on the ticket, he more and more gets his way – which means conservatives also get their way. Romney doesn’t just run as “Mr Fix-It” who’ll clean up the mess, he’s running as an ideological candidate with a major vision for changing the country.

But that means the terrible economic performance since 2009 and the large jobs deficit built up during that period are going to recede further into the rearview mirror. Romney is essentially conceding that the past 18 months of 150,000 jobs per month are good enough to get Obama re-elected, and he needs to wage a campaign about something bigger – which means that, a bit weirdly, the issue that ought to dominate the campaign is going to fade into obscurity.

Yes, that will disappear, but Kevin Drum looks at the upsides for Romney with the Ryan pick:

He’s not Sarah Palin. Ryan has been around for a long time and there are no surprise skeletons in his closet.

He’s got the boring white guy thing going for him, but he’s not Rob Portman boring.

Conservatives adore him. They haven’t quite suggested that they carve his mug into Mt. Rushmore yet (next to the Ronald Reagan addition), but they’ve come close.

I hate to concede this, but Ryan has a kind of nerd gravitas going for him that might help Romney with independents.

And the downsides:

He’s young, has no executive experience, and no foreign policy cred.

He’s not very warm and fuzzy.

The Ryan budget plan is now front and center in the campaign. He wants to push Granny off a cliff!

This may be a wash:

As for Ryan’s budget plan, with its replacement of Medicare by a voucher program, conventional wisdom says this is Ryan’s biggest drawback as a running mate. It immediately changes the Romney campaign from one about taxes and the bad economy into one about the gutting of Medicare. Maybe so – but I’m not so sure: Ryan’s budget plan probably won’t be much more of a campaign issue than it already is unless Romney explicitly re-endorses it, which I don’t think he’ll do. He’ll insist that he likes its general direction but he’s campaigning on his budget plan, and I think there’s a decent chance that everyone will go along with that.

Overall, I guess my take on this is that the Ryan pick helps Romney shore up his tea party base, but otherwise won’t have a big effect. Vice presidential choices rarely do, after all.

Or Ryan may help Romney in an odd way:

Oddly enough, there’s one way in which this might make a difference: if he presents such an irresistible target that Democrats take their eyes off the ball and spend too much time going after Ryan instead of Romney. Ryan is eminently attackable, and liberals loathe him enough that it will be tempting to spend a lot of time tearing him down.

Drum then offers a ton of links to liberals and economists who have torn Ryan’s budget plan to shreds, as he himself has:

I’m so tired of Paul Ryan I could scream. Every year we get a slightly different version of the same old thing, and every year we have to waste entire man-years of analysis in order to make the same exact points about it. And the biggest point is that his budget would force enormous, swinging cuts in virtually every domestic program, especially those for the poor. If this bothers Ryan, he’s had plenty of time to revise his budget roadmap to address it.

But he hasn’t. He knows perfectly well that his budget concentrates its cuts on the poorest Americans. It’s been pointed out hundreds of times, after all. If he found that troublesome he’d change it. Since he hasn’t, the only reasonable conclusion is that this is exactly what he intends. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Most Republicans say Ryan is brave to propose such things, so Drum suggests this from Michael Grunwald:

I should probably just shut up about Paul Ryan, because I believe there’s a federal statute requiring pundits to marvel at his “seriousness” and “courage.” I think there’s also a constitutional mandate enshrining him as a “deficit hawk,” even though he voted for the Bush tax cuts, the Bush military and security spending binge, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the bank bailout and the auto bailout, and against the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan. So I think for now I’ll just repost my screed about the Ryan plan from April 2011, suggesting that fuzzy math in the service of Tea Party ideology is not all that brave.

And here’s that screed from April 2011:

I don’t blame Ryan for trying to put a positive spin on his plan, rather than acknowledging that it would abolish Medicare and replace it with subsidies that won’t keep up with health inflation. People like Medicare. And I can understand why he’d open a budget negotiation with fantasy numbers that depend on 2.8% unemployment in 2021 and “dynamic scoring” that can’t pass a laugh test, rather than real numbers that would require much tougher choices. It’s smart politics. I just don’t understand how it became the political equivalent of the bayonet charge at Fredericksburg.

Drum adds this:

After all, what’s so courageous about consistently voting to increase spending for eight years, and then following it up with a plan that cuts taxes on the rich, slashes spending on the poor, and doesn’t even have the guts to get its arithmetic right? That doesn’t make Ryan brave – it just makes him a modern-day Republican.

But that is the modern-day Republican – there are the “makers” and the “takers” and the latter are just parasites that should just die or something. It’s an Ayn Rand thing. The details don’t really matter that much. Only nerds and wonks look at the actual numbers in any budget plan. After all, Red State’s Erick Erickson is encouraged:

Paul Ryan exposes the left’s great lie. They think they can just raise taxes on those who make $250,000.00 a year or more and never have to cut spending or fix entitlements. Paul Ryan not only exposes that lie, but he has plans to solve it. He does so as a fresh, young face who is not at all scary to old people and relates to them and to young people. He himself is in his early 40′s with small kids. He’s from a swing state, out-performed John McCain in his home district, and is telegenic and articulate. Paul Ryan is what Mitt Romney needs.

Or maybe he’s what Mitt Romney should have been, and that puzzles David Frum:

Romney has transformed a campaign about jobs and growth into a campaign about entitlements and Medicare. Romney will now have to spend the next months explaining how and why shrinking Medicare after 2023 will create prosperity in 2013. Economic conditions are so tough – the Obama reelection proposition is so weak – that Romney may win anyway. But wow, the job just got harder.

Timothy Noah agrees, saying this is the final demonstration that Romney will never, ever move to the center:

He will never stop trying to establish his bona fides with the Republican Party’s hard right wing, even when doing so demonstrably harms his own interest, as it does here. The inmates will run the asylum.

Michael Tomasky agrees with that:

Ryan will get some good press, and he’ll generate great enthusiasm among conservative intellectuals. But the introduction of him to the American people will inevitably involve some other things, too. It will involve explanations from the media that he is the GOP’s archconservative theoretician. It will involve explaining who Ayn Rand is. It will involve going into detail on his budget and in particular his plans for Medicare. Learn that now, folks, if you don’t know it already. It will involve endless interpretations exactly like mine – about Romney sending a signal that he is running an ultraconservative campaign. The Ryan controversy will overtake the campaign. Romney will become in some senses the running mate – the ticket’s No. 2.

Maybe it wasn’t a mistake when Mitt Romney introduced Paul Ryan as “the next president of the United States” on Saturday – it was just passing the baton – and Steve Kornacki explores that:

The Ryan selection really is the perfect expression of the relationship that exists between Romney and his party’s base. For a host of reasons, Romney has never been a natural match for the conservative leaders and voters who hold sway in the GOP, and since turning his attention to the national stage, Romney has consistently erred on the side of accommodating them.

It almost worked in his first presidential race, four years ago. In the run-up to that campaign, Romney junked the cultural liberalism and general pragmatism that had defined his Massachusetts political career, switching his position on abortion, adopting a hardline tone on gay issues, realigning himself with the NRA and so on. Doubts about the sincerity of his conversion plagued him, but he became the closest thing there was to a consensus conservative alternative to John McCain, ultimately ending his campaign at the 2008 CPAC convention, where his words left some attendees in tears.

After that, it seemed logical to assume Romney would be the party’s 2012 candidate. The passage of time would further erase memories of his moderate past, conservatives would give in, and the GOP’s tendency to nominate the next-in-line guy would take over.

That was the plan. John McCain lost to Barack Obama. The 2012 nomination was open. But the unexpected happened. The party’s base turned on him:

This has to do with how the right rationalized Obama’s victory. Interpreting the ’08 result as a broad rejection of conservatism was out of the question, so conservatives instead sold themselves on a narrative that portrayed George W. Bush as an ideological imposter who had spent eight years betraying the cause and pursuing Big Government policies. The idea was that Bush had given conservatism an undeservedly bad name, and that this had made possible the ascension of Obama, a genuine radical (in the right’s telling, anyway). Thus did conservatives launch a two-front war in early 2009, one against Obama, the other a purity-crusade within the GOP.

The result was a new round of scrutiny over Romney’s past, especially when Obama decided to use Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare law as the basis for his own. Curiously, in the ’08 campaign Romneycare hadn’t been much of a problem for Romney as he pursued the GOP base. But in the Obama-era, it became the chief complaint of conservatives who saw Romney as exactly the type of Republican who’d sell them out once in office. This accounts for the almost comical spectacle that defined the GOP race all of last year, with one random opponent after another zooming past Romney in the polls only to crash and burn.

Romney simply lucked out, as he kissed ass:

In the end, two things saved Romney. One was the lack of a genuinely competent and well-credentialed conservative foe; had one emerged, Romney surely would have been left in the dust. The other was Romney’s willingness to embrace virtually every theme and issue position that’s important to Obama-era conservatives. The right may not have trusted him, but in his pandering, Romney was essentially acknowledging and bowing to their power. In a way, this made him an attractive candidate to conservatives.

The man may really believe in nothing at all, but the man will do what he’s told:

It’s typical for candidates to play to their party’s base in the primary season, then move to the middle in the fall and, if elected, govern more from the center. But Romney doesn’t have that luxury because his fortunes – this fall and, if he’s elected, as president – will depend on keeping the GOP base in line. And that GOP base is in no mood to tolerate moderation and compromise, and has shown itself to be ready and willing to revolt against any Republican who goes down that road. On Capitol Hill, this dynamic has paralyzed previously pragmatic Republicans (including the Speaker of the House).

Romney will be in the same position if he’s president. There are those who believe that, deep inside, he’s a man of moderate politics. But if he tries to govern that way, the result would be an ugly, presidency-crippling intraparty revolt.

The Ryan selection is a confirmation of this dynamic.

Perhaps Ryan would be what Dick Cheney was to George Bush – the guy who runs things while he plays video games and rides his trail bike. And we all know how that worked out.

But what’s done is done. One weekend in August changed everything – except you probably won’t see the Pirates in the World Series, and you may not see Paul Ryan running the country for Mitt Romney. But you might.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to When Things Change

  1. Rick says:

    I agree with Kornacki. Maybe choosing Ryan mostly looks bold because it’s an act of desperation. After all, why pick as your running mate Paul Ryan, famous for his “Ryan Plan”, except because it means you’ll be adopting the “Ryan Plan” as part of your campaign?

    So critics now start to do the obvious — that is, point out why maybe 70% of the country doesn’t like the plan, and then explain a plan that, although the more Republicans learn about it, the more the like it, the more Democrats and, more importantly, Independents learn about it, the LESS they like it — and suddenly, Romney pipes up and says, Hold on there, as much as I like the “direction” of the Ryan Plan, I’m not signing on to it, and will at some point be offering up my OWN budget instead!

    Huh?!?

    And so how long will it take before the conservatives, who have been watching this budget of Ryan’s inch toward the end zone, rise up and give the Romney campaign what for?

    And if they don’t, won’t that just be because they have no alternative but to back Romney, if they want to defeat Obama? So what ever happened to the anti-Obama enthusiasm among Republicans that will get them out of the house on election day? Either way, it looks like trouble for those people over there.

    In fact, though, I disagree with Yglesias. I welcome the choice of Ryan as an opening to a discussion of economic theory that this country needs. (I’m surprised you didn’t use that great quote from Obama, who, in acknowledging the selection of Ryan, according to the Chicago Tribune, “criticized the newly minted Republican team of Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan during a series of hometown fundraisers Sunday, accusing the pair of trying to sell an economic plan of ‘trickle-down fairy dust’ that doesn’t work.”)

    By the way, I’ve been hearing some more talk over the weekend — not just from Newt Gingrich, but yes, in one case, from him — that voters, particularly in Florida, need to understand that whatever Ryan’s budget does to Medicare won’t impact anyone who is over 55 years old today, since it would go into effect in 2022.

    This, I think, is a somewhat cynical approach that assumes that those of us already grandfathered into Medicare, once we learn it won’t effect us, will relax, since we only worry about anyone threatening to take Medicare away from us, and don’t care about somebody taking Medicare away from our children and grandchildren.

    I personally think that assumption is wrong. I think voters not only care about themselves, but also about their families, and also the fate of their country.

    Rick

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