Mitt Romney swung the presidential race in a new direction when he chose Paul Ryan to be the Republican Party’s candidate for Vice President. Senator Rob Portman would have been the safe choice. Portman has much more experience at higher levels both in the Senate and in both Bush Administrations including as Director of the Office of Management and Budget and U.S. Trade Representative. Portman also would have helped in Ohio, a critical swing state.
Until now the election bore a close resemblance to the Carter-Reagan race of 1980. In both cases a weak but likable Democratic incumbent with high disapproval ratings faced a Republican challenge who portrayed himself as a strong conservative. Many voters had already decided that they did not want Carter to serve a second term, but they needed to see the challenger clear a reasonable bar of competence before they could support the challenger. Somewhere in the debates Reagan cleared this threshold and what had been a close race became a rout. Voters have a similar opinion of Obama. Even his signature accomplishment, health care, counts against him with the a recent Real Clear Politics average of polls showing that almost 50 percent of voters favor its repeal while only 42 percent oppose repeal.
The dominant fact of this election can be seen from a recent Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll of six swing states . The key question in that poll asked voters about the effect that each candidate’s policies would have on their personal situation. The results are shown below:
The results are pretty dramatic. In Colorado the margin is 21 percentage points against Obama and in no state is the margin of loss less than 12 points. A significant plurality of voters think that the President’s policies would make them worse off. This is not a question about likability or competence. It goes to intent and the direction the country should go in. It is hard to see how any candidate with these number could get elected.
Romney, in contrast does much better, despite the President’s attempts to portray him as an extremist whose policies would gut the middle class in favor of the rich. The Governor actually wins the question in Colorado and Florida and comes close in Virgina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Only in Ohio do the two candidates face equal skepticism.
Until now, the primary question in this race was whether Romney could reassure voters enough about his basic qualifications and intentions to justify their abandoning Obama. Given the Presidents job approval numbers and the above opinions, this bar is set very low. Although Romney has had some difficulty clearing it, the debates would have been his real test and opportunity. It is very likely he would have met the criteria.
The choice of Ryan fundamentally changes the debate. It introduces the issue of dramatic entitlement reform front and center. It will be very difficult for Romney to keep the focus solely on the economy’s performance during the last four years. The problem is that there is very little evidence that the American people are ready for the kind of entitlement reforms that Paul Ryan is advocating. For that reason the choice of Ryan may hurt Romney’s campaign. Having Ryan on the ticket will energize the base. But it may alienate independents and many moderate Republicans who are reluctant to see dramatic changes in Social Security and Medicare.
Anyone who has heard Paul Ryan speak knows that this is a debate he relishes and thinks he can win. It is also a debate the country desperately needs to have and soon. Once you rule out the possibility of dramatic tax increases or a magical slowdown in the rise in health care costs, cuts in spending, especially the large entitlements, become inevitable. The United States is still a rich and productive country and there is plenty of wealth to make sure that everyone has enough, but the sooner we come to grips with fiscal insolvency the better off we will be. A Romney win, especially one of five percentage points or more would have to be seen as a mandate to enact these reforms. The President’s policies are known and are not going to change. The Romney/Ryan challenge is to convince enough voters that their policies, while perhaps painful in the short-run will make their future and the nation stronger.
This campaign now promises the most open and honest debate about the role of government, the structure of its taxing and spending programs, and the tradeoffs between income inequality and economic mobility that we have had in a long time. And there is no more passionate and skilled advocate of his side of the argument than Paul Ryan. It is a debate we need to have. It is also one that will make us stronger.