Analysis: Dealing with the Ryan factor

  • Article by: DAN BALZ , Washington Post
  • Updated: August 14, 2012 - 9:48 PM

Attacks from the Democrats may require a more vigorous defense.

"Defining moment" is an overused phrase in politics, but not this week. Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate has all the appearances of marking another potential pivot point in the 2012 campaign.

Romney is enjoying an initial burst of energy from adding Ryan to the ticket. He is drawing the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds of his campaign, in the same way that GOP presidential nominee John McCain did four years ago after naming Sarah Palin as his running mate. He is getting what he hoped for when he passed over safer and less exciting candidates.

But he has also bought some trouble. Romney appears to be struggling to carve out an identity that takes the best of what Ryan offers while insulating himself from the most controversial elements of Ryan's budget blueprint. That has put the presumptive Republican nominee on defense again at a moment when he needs to be on offense. He can't afford to stay in that posture very long.

Ryan's high profile

Romney and his advisers insist that he will be running on his plan, not Ryan's. In part, they've done that to remind people that the tail will not wag the dog, that the running mate will not overshadow the nominee.

That should go without saying, but it's far easier to make that argument when the running mate isn't known as the intellectual leader of the party, or certainly of House Republicans, and when the running mate hasn't been in the thick of the battle over how to transform government through tax cuts, budget cuts and entitlement reform.

Romney embraced the conceptual framework of Ryan's blueprint long before he selected him as his running mate. But at the time, he preserved some space to say he wouldn't follow Ryan's outline in all its details.

Now he's in a different place because Ryan will be on the ticket. What Romney hasn't said is whether he has real differences with Ryan or whether those differences are so minor as to make their plans indistinguishable. If there are substantive differences, they ought to be highlighted and explained.

In truth, on the big issues, Romney and Ryan are in agreement. They favor big tax cuts in which the wealthiest Americans would benefit. They back cuts in domestic discretionary spending. Both support changes that would convert Medicare into a premium-support program for younger workers. Romney wants significant reforms in Social Security as well.

Romney hoped that the choice of Ryan would amplify his message that the status quo or even small changes won't solve the country's fiscal problems. That is a big argument and a debate worth having.

A new opening

But Romney hasn't yet found a way to elevate the campaign debate effectively. Instead he's dealing with questions about whether this or that aspect of Ryan's plan is onerous or damaging to seniors or the middle class or the poor. In short, Romney has given the Democrats a new opening to attack.

The Democrats are using August as they used July, to define the opposition negatively before Romney-- and now Ryan -- fully defend and define themselves.

Romney's convention in two weeks may be the moment when the campaign ties it all together -- the policy differences with Obama outlined with clarity; the economic and fiscal arguments advanced with sharpness and elevation. For now, the most effective offense by Romney may be a more vigorous defense.

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