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Romney’s Veep: Attack Dog or Tonto?

Romney, Ryan, and Va. Governor Bob McDonnell campaigning in Ashland, Va. on Saturday, August 11.

Romney, Ryan, and Va. Governor Bob McDonnell campaigning in Ashland, Va. on Saturday, August 11.  Photo by tvnewsbadge, CC BY 2.0.

If all goes as it should, Paul Ryan will spend two weeks in the national spotlight: this week and the week surrounding the vice presidential debate on October 11 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.  That debate will come eight days after the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney and five days before their second encounter, and Ryan’s job will be to attack Obama in gloves-off, full-throated ways that Romney, as the Republican nominee for president, will need to show more restraint in doing.  That’s the nature of a vice presidential candidacy—attack, attack, attack.  And not, incidentally, attack the other candidate for vice president, which would strike most voters as tangential to the real choice they are making. 

This week, Ryan’s job will be different: to appear to all the world as Tonto to the Lone Ranger, Robin to Batman—that is, as the junior member of a high-powered team that is greater than the sums of its parts.  The chances of that happening are very good.  After Romney wrapped up the presidential nomination this spring, he was joined on the campaign trail by a number of prospective running mates.  With none of them did he click as well as in public—and probably in private—as with Ryan, whose youthful energy and humor seemed to bring out the relaxed, likeable qualities in Romney that we keep hearing about from his friends and family but almost never see in his public persona.

For most of American history, vice presidential selection has been a matter of ticket balancing.  If the candidate for president was a northerner, choose a southerner or westerner; if he was liberal, choose a conservative; if Protestant, a Catholic; and more recently—at least sometimes—if a man, then a woman, a la Democrat Walter Mondale’s selection of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008. 

Romney’s selection of Ryan fits the traditional pattern in two obvious ways.  First, unlike Romney, Ryan is Catholic.  Second, and more important, Ryan is a Washington figure and Romney is not.  You have to go back sixty-four years, to New York governor Thomas Dewey’s selection of California governor Earl Warren, to find an example of one Washington outsider choosing another as his running mate.   However appealing outsider status may be to voters fed up with Washington politics, they seem to want reassurance that someone on the ticket knows his or her way around the nation’s capital.  As young as Ryan is, he’s a seasoned Washington veteran.   Ryan has been a member of the House of Representatives for fourteen years, most recently as chair of the House budget committee and one of the three highly publicized GOP “Young Guns” on Capitol Hill.

In every other respect, the Romney-Ryan ticket expresses the break with traditional ticket balancing inaugurated by Bill Clinton in 1992, when he chose a vice presidential candidate who reinforced rather than balanced his leading qualities as the head of the ticket.  Like Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, Romney and Ryan are from adjacent states in a region of the country that has recently been slim pickins for nominees of their party.  Like Clinton and Gore, too, they are both from the same wing of the party—in Romney and Ryan’s case, the economic conservative wing.  And like Clinton and Gore, Romney and Ryan seem like versions of each other: smart, analytical, serious.

Clinton’s choice of Gore in 1992 was synergistic, a force multiplier that took the presidential candidate’s best qualities and amplified them.  Romney’s choice of Ryan may well turn out to have the same political payoff.  Equally important, if they are elected, Romney is likely to want to make good use of Ryan in his administration in the same way Clinton did with Gore.  Not just politics was served by Romney’s pick, but—depending on the outcome of the election—perhaps governance as well.

Michael Nelson is the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College and a senior fellow at the Miller Center.  He and Miller Center professor Sidney M. Milkis are coauthors of The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2011.

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