Home 2019 Elections Why Romney Chose Ryan: The McCain Conundrum

Why Romney Chose Ryan: The McCain Conundrum


by Paul Goldman

When Professor Rozell and I wrote the first piece in the nation predicting – 100% – that Romney would choose a Catholic running mate despite it never happening before in the modern age of the Republican Party – we had no doubts about being proved right. Why?

Because in the final analysis, Romney, like McCain is playing to win. Romney is not a cause-oriented guy, someone who would rather be right than be President. And like John McCain, he got to this point in August of the election cycle facing a similar conundrum. Let’s explain.

By his own admission, Romney is a spreadsheet kind of guy. If you run the numbers, from any angle, it comes out the same: to the extent there is a swing vote in this election, it is white Catholic working class heterosexual women without a four-year college degree and who are not particularly partisan in terms of being Democrats or Republicans. I know these kinds of demographic parameters bother non-statisticians. But in political strategy, you learn to accept it as a way to move the pieces on the chess board. You look for ways to reach groups of people; it is mass retailing, not door to door.

There is no GOP female who would be seen as qualified to the President in this group. So this meant Romney would have to run with a man. Team Romney understood this dynamic early.

I believe Governor McDonnell of Virginia was at the top of the list prior to his huge blunder during the 2012 General Assembly Session on the so-called “transvaginal” issue. It cost him any hope of being chosen as the VEEP this year. Assuming Romney loses, that is a lucky break for McDonnell, who would then be untarnished for 2016 or for a run against Senator Warner in 2014.

McDonnell also shouldn’t feel too bad about his blunder from another point of view; namely, that Romney reached August realizing he faced the McCain Conundrum. That is to say: Romney, like McCain, realized his Plan A strategy would not let him win this year.

Like McCain, Mr. Romney has learned how difficult it is to beat Barack Obama nationwide. The President is a tough political target — he is really, really good.  

Romney figured he could as the “Obama Economy bad, Businessman Romney economy good” candidate, riding high unemployment, falling real income and depressing thoughts of the future all the way to the Oval Office. Moreover, he thought he could do it without having a New Deal, A New Frontier, Reaganomics, Middle Class Tax cuts, that is to say a simple program to explain to people in a word of two or three used by FDR, JFK, Ronnie and Bill. Instead Romney had a 59 point plan, the type of A+ term paper for his old Harvard MBA days.

Long story short: Romney realized sometime in July that his Plan A was not going to work for several reasons. One, he had been sucked into a negative ad battle hurting his image. Two, the people’s view of the economy is set by events, not TV ads. And three: among the target women’s group, he isn’t someone they related too, nor his wife. That’s reality. Meaning: Romney knew by August 1 he need to go to Plan B.

A look at the polls points to one issue for Republicans above all others: I will call it the fiscal issue. The target voters tend to believe that on the fiscal issue, the President and Democrats are not as good as Republicans. They tend to see a guy like Romney – a businessman – as being more of a deficit, debt, anti-spending hawk, someone who is more likely than a Democrat to stop the wasteful spending, the handouts, etc. Even if it’s not accurate, in politics perceptions matter.

Thus Romney figured: Whatever I am going to get on the economy I will get. Since it will not be enough, he figured the smart business move – in terms of investment of time and resources – would be on the fiscal issues. He also knew the Wall Street Journal and other key players on the conservative side wanted him to make a big play on the fiscal issue. They want to move the President to the middle.

Why? They know the odds favor the President being re-elected. They also know at some point, tax rates are going back to the Clinton era. There is no way they can avoid this and they know it. SO: The question then is how best to make the President pay something for getting his higher tax rates on individuals. The only trade-off acceptable would be a reduction in business taxes/regulations and also some slowing of what they would call “entitlement state spending.” They need Romney to raise these issues big-time in 2012. It turns out that Romney also believes he has to go this way more than originally planned.

Both Romney and the major conservative thinkers realize discussing these issues in a presidential campaign from the standpoint of promising less, as opposed to more, has proven very risky in the past.  But as I say, Romney realizes he needs a Plan B. He knows the fiscal issue will bring him a lot of support from key thinkers, he knows the fiscal issue will block Sarah Palin and other less credible types from attacking him (they don’t really want him to win, they want an open GOP seat in 2016), and he knows there is an inherent credibility in calls for better fiscal management form Uncle Sugar.

Governor Christie, Governor McDonnell, and other key Catholic players don’t really have a lot of resume chops in this area. They are better as the “outsider ticket” mate. But this is not what Romney decided he needed on August 1: rather, he needed someone who could help make the case on the fiscal issue.

His search came down to one guy: Congressman Paul Ryan. But like Palin, it comes with a catch: there is a real potential downside. For Palin, it was a total lack of substance. For Ryan, it is the opposite problem: too much substance.

Moreover, Mr. Ryan has fallen in love with all the flattery sent his way.  That is to say: Mr. Ryan is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, or his fans make him out to be. He is good with numbers, a clever talker, and someone who does enjoy dealing with substance and the process of reaching conclusions.  Nothing wrong with any of that.

But in the end, process doesn’t matter as much as  the final product. In that regard, the Congressman has embraced all of the ideas that voters dislike about the GOP Congress. All of them. They don’t work.

Right now, most people don’t have a clue as to any of this. This will change.

Romney Is Now Where McCain Was 4 years ago: He is scrambling to put together Plan B. My gut feel: When you are scrambling to put together Plan B at this stage of a presidential campaign, this is not a good sign.

Yet I believe Democrats are way too giddy about the Ryan pick. There is an opening for him and Romney to make their fiscal case given the current public mood. But at the same time, the economy trumps everything.

So in the end, Romney’s plan B still has to be seen as dealing with Job # 1. So he can’t escape the economy. Nor the Electoral College math. If Ryan can help in Wisconsin, then that is important since the Badger State in my view could be one of the keys to victory come November.

But right now, given the politics, the Ryan choice is more about Plan A not working and the campaign scrambling to go Plan B. Whatever his potential pluses, the downsides associated with rising to become a top leader in the GOP House majority strike me as a huge burden for Romney to overcome even under the best of circumstances.  


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