I didn't see Paul Ryan on the ticket. Even while I had been thinking Ryan was the true GOP leader far more than Romney could be, I had anticipated Romney-Rubio. It was always that Americans would, in part, be voting on the ideas in the Ryan budget; now Romney has given us the chance to vote on Ryan himself.
Mitt Romney may have accomplished three goals with his pick of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate: He cemented his conservative base, he showed he was capable of surprising us, and he signaled that the nature of government should be a subject of debate this election.
The first may hurt him overall, but gives him a boost he needs now. As a Tea Party favorite, Ryan will bring a influx of their devoted enthusiasm into the Romney campaign. The right wing has never been in love with Mitt. He was the governor of Massachusetts, after all. His wife donated to Planned Parenthood. He created the hallmark legislation that became the blueprint for President Obama's hallmark legislation.
But Paul Ryan is a man they believe in. His budget plan would cut taxes beyond the Bush Tax Cuts, he would change pillars of our social safety net into risky vouchers, and he has been willing to lead a Tea Party Caucus of Congressional lemmings over a cliff, becoming the least popular Congress in history, for the sake of ideological rigor.
That kind of conservative drive will give the Romney campaign a sense of mission and a new set of enthusiasts leading up to the Conventions. Yet it will also scare away independents and other demographics Romney would rely on. Older voters may be skeptical of the proposed reforms to Medicare. Women, who already break away from Romney, won't be enticed by Ryan's anti-choice, anti-Planned Parenthood, anti-birth control crusading. And anyone who says, "I'm sick of the two sides not getting along," will see Ryan as Romney's ultimate capitulation to a less moderate, more severe style of politics.
The second accomplishment is that bland, cautious Romney surprised us. Romney is no longer predictable and safe. He's not hedging. He's taking a risks. As Nate Silver argued in the Times, he's seeking a "game change."
However, he's changed the game in a way that locks him into old patterns. What if he had chosen Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who never would have said yes), and run on a platform of successful technocrats tossing party dogma aside to fix the economy and strengthen the nation? Or even Chris Christie -- someone whose more moderate social views would have been Romney's way of signaling that Republican big tent was open to the public once again?
Instead, he chose someone with the youthfulness of Quayle, the harshness of Cheney, the baggage of the Tea Party, and ultimately the impact of his predecessor in this slot: Sarah Palin. Despite trying to avoid the pitfalls of McCain's game-change moment, Romney may have duplicated it: the potentially moderate Republican Presidential candidate who could win the respect of some disaffected Democrats has made clear that it's the conservative extremists they want to please.
The final goal is, to me, the most interesting. With Ryan, Romney wants to make the conversation more government vs. less government. He has at his side a man who has suggested cuts to federal programs that have appalled American voters and made his own party faithful pause. But he can credibly say, in a way that Romney can't entirely, that he will throw the baby out with the bathwater if it means reducing the size of government programs.
If it's a debate of more vs. less, maybe the GOP ticket will find new takers. There are plenty of libertarian-minded Democrats who worry about the deficit. There are liberals who think the size of government contributes to our involvement in overseas conflicts and our support of distressed banks. There is a real appeal to "less."
So the Obama-Biden team will have two choices: They can agree we need less government, and get drawn into a trap of negotiating away their advantage on Medicare, Social Security and other important and popular programs. Or they can argue that what we need is less waste -- such as a smaller military budget. And they must affirm that we need a smart, strong, credible government to invest in Alzheimer's, cancer and AIDS research; to hold businesses accountable for polluting our water and our air, and to ensure early education opportunities for our poorest children so they will be equipped to contribute to a stronger America in decades to come.
For a bonus, if Obama wants to nod to the deficit, he has a ready-made argument: ending the excessive tax breaks for the country's wealthiest citizens, who are getting away with record profits and endless tax shelters.
Romney may succeed in deflecting attention from his record at Bain and his tax returns for a little while with this surprising and news-making choice. But when the race settles back in, and we're debating government, it will be the incumbent's term to take the risk: and instead of joining their rivals in attacking government, they need to stand firm and describe a government that can be the tool of our shared goals and the insurer of our common prosperity.
Then again, the VP rarely directs the debate, and it's just as likely Ryan will need to adopt Romney's talking points as vice versa. As Mitt returns to his older patterns, he'll back-pedal from elements of the Ryan Budget. Watching Ryan do the same will be painful, especially to conservatives who won't believe what they are seeing: compromise.
Until then, though, conservatives and liberals alike are gleeful -- because at this moment, whether you're on offense or defense, Ryan is a lot more fun that Mitt Romney.