The conventional wisdom, at least until about four years ago, was that vice presidential selections, even the very good and the very bad, don’t end up mattering very much by November. Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle are perhaps the two best examples, the former with poll numbers through the roof (especially after the infamous “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” debate) and the latter, well, enough said. From the beginning, Quayle was viewed as a fair or poor choice by a majority of Americans. If it mattered, I might be Justice Estrich, instead of your local columnist.
By that score, the fact that Americans don’t know exactly what to make of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that the first reaction was decidedly negative (although based on almost no prior knowledge), that my Democratic pals are gleeful, that seniors in Florida are likely to be inundated with old quotes threatening the security of the demographic that would take an ambulance to get to the polls (I ran “Get Out the Vote” in Florida once, believe me), shouldn’t matter very much in terms of who wins.
Except that it very well might.
Here’s my theory: The whole equation changed with John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Barack Obama’s selection of Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., was the usual non-event. He’d been vetted repeatedly, was known by everybody, could rightly claim the foreign policy experience that Obama arguably lacked, and pleased the convention crowd. Done.
But Palin was different. Not only did she garner more attention than any vice presidential candidate ever (including Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, maybe because the consensus was that President Ronald Reagan was unbeatable, or because she was vigilant about doing her homework), but her selection and ultimate performance really did seem to change the way people thought of McCain. She mattered.
And while Ryan is certainly no Palin — for better and for worse — the glee with which Democrats reacted to his selection reflected more than a sense of passing fancy.
So blame Palin if Ryan ends up dragging Mitt Romney down, as I think he will.
But also blame Ryan himself, his bio and his platform.
For one thing, there’s the problem of his being a member of the House of Representatives. Can you name the last member of the House elected president? I can’t.
How about the last member of the House who was on a winning presidential ticket? I’m failing again.
People think of governors as presidents. They think of senators as presidents. Members of the House may see a president when they look in the mirror to shave in the morning, but there is no evidence — and much to the contrary — that voters share that view.
Even more important, there’s the much talked about Ryan budget. Enough has been said about Social Security and Medicare. Ryan’s positions are poison among seniors. Poison. The only thing worse than allowing Cuban criminals to land in Florida (President Jimmy Carter ‘80) is telling seniors you’re going to revamp the programs that they literally depend on in a life or death sort of way.
But that’s only a piece of the problem. It’s bad enough to have to do a budget when you’re the incumbent. Doing one as the challenger, much less one who seeks to deal with the deficit while getting rid of taxes that are paid mostly by the very rich (cutting Romney’s taxes!!!), is something most challengers avoid like the plague. That is why, only days after selecting him, you’re seeing Romney dancing away from the very platform that allowed Ryan to win the national attention that put him on the short list.
So you can blame Palin if this choice comes back to bite Romney, and you can blame Ryan himself for staking out political poison. But at the end of the day, if there’s blame, it rightly falls squarely on the shoulders of the man who made the decision.
Voters should care about vice presidents because of the “heartbeat away” business, but I think the choice itself may matter more for what it says about the person who makes it. Conservative members of the chattering class are applauding Romney for the guts of his selection, which I think means he picked someone they like. But it remains to be seen whether voters will consider that choice to say more about Romney’s desire to mollify conservative doubters than to actually position himself, substantively and politically, to win this election.
The Romney who used to be the governor of Massachusetts could give Obama a run for his money. I’m not so sure about the Romney who picked Ryan.
— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.