Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate has the potential to affect this year's presidential race more than usual. It's often said that the vice presidential running mate has had almost no effect on the outcome of a presidential election. The sole exception is John Kennedy's selection of Lyndon Johnson. That's because of its impact on Texas' electoral vote, and without Texas and the tainted 8800 vote margin in Illinois, Nixon would have won the Presidency in 1960. So Johnson is frequently cited as having been crucial to the margin of victory for Kennedy in Texas.
The VP pick certainly hasn't been much of a factor since. Look back over recent history. Certainly Biden was not crucial to Obama's winning Delaware, or Cheney to Bush's winning Wyoming, or Gore to Clinton in Tennessee, and so on. So the first question is: could Ryan be helpful to Romney in winning Wisconsin? Possibly so, although as a Congressman, he has never won statewide. Nonetheless, Wisconsin is undeniably a swing state this year. But my thesis today is not that Ryan's selection is important because he may help Romney win Wisconsin, but rather because he may help nationally because of his unique ability to affect the campaign debate nationally. My thesis is that there's some Reagan in Ryan, and that's what may make the difference.
Just as with Reagan in 1980, Ryan in 2012 is not directly well known by the American people, although indirectly he has been widely characterized in much the same way. Most of the American voting populace had not really met Ronald Reagan before the 1980 campaign began. They knew that he had been a better-than-expected governor of California, and that he had run a credible but losing primary campaign against Gerald Ford in 1976, but they didn't really know him. What they did know was based on media characterizations of him as extreme and maybe even a little scary. Then they met him, on the campaign trail, in televised debates, and what they found was someone who wasn't the least bit scary, and whose ideas and proposals seemed based on common sense, not some extremist ideology.
Much of what the American people know of Paul Ryan is similarly indirect. They know him primarily through slanted press coverage of his budget plan. They've been told that it, and thus he, are extreme and even a little scary. But when they meet Paul Ryan, on the campaign trail, and in televised interviews, many of which sound like debates with the reporter embracing the opposing arguments, Paul Ryan isn't the least bit scary, and his deals and proposals seem based on common sense and a kind of unabashed honesty, something that stands in contrast to both the slick Obama or the bumbling Biden.
Add in Ryan's Reaganesque optimism and ability to inspire audiences and bring them to their feet cheering, and you have quite an apt parallel to Reagan. But Ryan also has the advantage of youth on his side, so he may connect with younger voters disillusioned by Obama's ineptitude and beginning to rethink their reflexive embrace of liberalism, as they realize that it is both fiscally and culturally unsustainable.
Frankly, I had been afraid that Mitt Romney might have been reluctant to select a vice presidential running-mate who might outshine him on the stump. He deserves a lot of credit for having made a bold pick. There's a lot of Reagan in Ryan, and he could well turn out to be the most consequential vice presidential running mate selection in the last fifty years.