Romney rolls the dice

Has there ever been a campaign that went, literally overnight, from being about nothing to leaping neck-deep into the most treacherous, dangerous issue in American politics? Until last night, I thought Romney was running for president because he wanted to be president, full stop. Everything about him suggested personal ambition over vision — the endless flip-flops, the extreme caution on the trail, the negative-ad carpet-bombing of Gingrich and Santorum in the primaries. Then I wake up this morning and find he’s made the boldest move on entitlement reform in modern U.S. history, all but gambling his candidacy on the public’s ability to not only see through Democratic Mediscare smears but to embrace a reform agenda. I don’t know how to process it. I respect Romney tremendously for it, but it just doesn’t compute. It’s like watching C-3PO lead the raid on the Death Star.

I’ve seen a dozen posts online this morning marveling at how he’s now abandoned his “referendum” approach to the election — i.e. “vote for me because Obama’s terrible” — in favor of a “choice” approach, but that doesn’t remotely capture the boldness of this shift. It’s not just that he’s given Obama his wish by making the election a clear choice, it’s that he’s made it a choice about the most momentous, fraught domestic policy dilemma the country’s faced in ages. Amazing. Awesome. Baffling. As someone on Twitter said this morning, imagine John Kerry in August 2004 suddenly deciding he’d had enough of attacking Bush on Iraq and that it was time to make the election a battle over whether the U.S. should have single-payer health care. This is sort of like that.

I would have voted for Ryan for president if he had run so, as you might expect, I like the pick. To me, it’s a “clear conscience” selection: We’re going to own our agenda, let our very best salesman make the pitch on the biggest possible stage, and have the country decide. If they want to send The One back for a second term knowing that the consequences are a near-term fiscal meltdown, hey, that’s democracy. At least, for once, they’ll have made a fully informed choice on this issue; if the electorate prefers the $15 Trillion-Dollar Man’s “vision” on how to solve this existential problem to Paul Ryan’s, I prefer to have a clear statement at the polls to that effect. William Saletan is almost giddy over Ryan’s selection, not because he thinks it’s a sure winner for Democrats but because we’re finally guaranteed a meaningful argument on a matter of deepest consequence by a guy who can make it better than anyone else:

Ryan refutes the Democratic Party’s bogus arguments. He knows that our domestic spending trajectory is unsustainable and that liberals who fail to get it under control are leading their constituents over a cliff, just like in Europe. Eventually, you can’t borrow enough money to make good on your promises, and everyone’s screwed. Ryan understands that the longer we ignore the debt crisis and postpone serious budget cuts—the liberal equivalent of denying global warming—the more painful the reckoning will be. There’s nothing compassionate about that kind of irresponsibility.

Maybe, like me, you were raised in a liberal household. You don’t agree with conservative ideas on social or foreign policy. But this is why God made Republicans: to force a reality check when Democrats overpromise and overspend…

Screw the polls. Republicans will be on the right side of the spending debate. They’ll be on the right side of the substance debate, too. Instead of bickering about Romney’s tax returns and repeating the obvious but unhelpful observation that the unemployment rate sucks, we’ll actually have to debate serious problems and solutions. That’s great for the country.

Right on. Lefty bloggers have been pushing a theory lately that Romney’s choosing Ryan as a fall guy or patsy because he suspects he’s going to lose and wants to be able to blame someone else when he does. (“It was that darned Ryan budget!”) That’s unlikely — see my point above about how important personal ambition is to Romney — but it is true, I think, that Romney sees losing as a more real possibility than he did before. He wouldn’t take the risk of campaigning from the third rail if he thought he was cruising to victory by playing it safe. But that’s okay; a bet that would pay off this big is worth longer odds. The enormous risk here is that, if Romney crashes and burns, not only will we get another four years of O but Republicans and centrist Democrats who were heretofore open to entitlement reform will run screaming from it afterward. The enormous reward, obviously, is that if Romney wins, we not only get a Republican president but one with support from voters to take this issue up in earnest (finally). I think it’s worth the gamble.

But I’m under no illusions. This makes winning harder, not easier. Some tough truths: The Democrats are going to flood Ohio and Florida with ads aiming to scare the pants off of seniors and blue-collar workers about the “safety net” disappearing under Romney/Ryan. Obama will now frame the election not merely as a choice between Ryan’s budget and his own plan (whatever that is) but as a choice between the president and, as represented by Ryan, the most unpopular Congress in modern history. If the attacks work and Romney fades down the stretch, that could have huge downballot effects in House races too, jeopardizing the GOP majority. I think the best-case scenario is that Ryan’s salesmanship brings enough people around on entitlement reform to fight the Democrats to a standstill on that issue, and then Romney wins the election narrowly due to voter dissatisfaction on the economy. In other words, it’s both a “referendum election” and a “choice election”: If Ryan can make the choice on the budget a stalemate, the ticket can still win a referendum on Obama’s job performance. But that assumes, per Ryan’s speech this morning, that some critical mass of voters will respond to a campaign that tells them the truth and that ideas beat demagoguery, as the man himself once insisted. Is that true? Has it ever been true before when it comes to entitlements? If Krauthammer’s right that the infamous Obama Super PAC steelworker ad is working because voters don’t pay enough attention to be able to cut through the B.S. in emotionally charged ads, imagine how difficult it’ll be to rebut B.S. on a subject as complex and emotionally toxic as entitlements. Sean Trende, RCP’s elections guru (who’s no liberal, needless to say), argues that not only does this pick make things harder for Romney, it actually opens up the possibility of an Obama landslide. Huge gamble.

Just one teensy tiny footnote to all this: Is Romney going to campaign on the Ryan budget? It would be beyond bizarre to add a lightning rod to the ticket and then take cover from the lightning. And yet:

“Gov. Romney applauds Paul Ryan for going in the right direction with his budget,” according to the [Romney campaign] talking points, “and as president he will be putting together his own plan for cutting the deficit and putting the budget on a path to balance.”…

“Of course they aren’t going to have the same view on every issue. But they both share the view that this election is a choice about two fundamentally different paths for this country. President Obama has taken America down a path of debt and decline. Romney and Ryan believe in a path for America that leads to more jobs, less debt and smaller government. So, while you might find an issue or two where they might not agree, they are in complete agreement on the direction that they want to lead America.”

Eli Lake put it this way: “The worst that can happen to Paul Ryan is that the ticket wins. Then Ryan — who has won a loyal following as the principled budget cutter — will have to line up behind Romney budgets. This is kind of like putting Eddie Van Halen in REO Speedwagon. Yes it makes REO Speedwagon rock a lot harder, but it totally ruins Van Halen.” Is that what we’re getting here, Speedwagon with Eddie on guitar? Or are we getting Van Halen with a new lead singer, namely, Mitt Romney? (So sorry for that image, really.) Romney’s going to get torn to shreds for Ryan’s budget no matter what, so I’m not sure what the point is in proposing his own budget if it’s significantly different from Ryan’s. You own it now, Mitt. If you didn’t want to, why’d you choose Ryan?