TAMPA, Fla. — Vice presidents, it has been said with some accuracy, go to funerals that are too important to just send flowers but not important enough to send the president. Being the vice presidential nominee on a losing presidential ticket often tempts that nominee to run in the next national election for his party’s presidential nomination — and to experience defeat yet again.
Recall the failed presidential efforts of previous VP nominees John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Sargent Shriver, Edmund Muskie and Henry Cabot Lodge. True, Bob Dole — who was Gerald Ford’s running mate — did, after unsuccessful primary campaigns in 1980 and 1988, eventually capture the 1996 GOP nomination, some 20 years after his vice presidential run.
Still, Ryan has already shown himself to be anything but the garden-variety No. 2. Imagine, if you would, a 40-something Democratic VP nominee in his maiden speech to a national convention and a national audience vowing his Democratic Party would “protect and strengthen” the existing tax code so as to lighten the tax burden on the most successful investment bankers and hedge fund managers.
This hypothetical Democratic VP nominee would be accused of campaign malpractice. The overwhelming reaction from all sides of the political aisle would be: If this campaign is to be fought over which of the two parties is committed longer and stronger to keeping taxes lower on America’s most prosperous citizens, the anti-tax GOP wins hands-down. Case closed.
For boldly challenging conventional wisdom by promising in his maiden national speech that his Romney-Ryan “administration will protect and strengthen Medicare for my mom’s generation, for my generation, and for my kids and your kids,” Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the youthful Republican VP nominee, has earned the attention he is getting.
Because Sam Ryan, Paul’s youngest child, is just now 7, that means a commitment to keep Medicare alive and available until at least 2070.
But here’s the problem for Ryan-Romney and the GOP in 2012. Four years ago, John McCain carried only one age cohort of voters against Barack Obama: voters older than age 65. When asked by the respected Pew poll their reaction to a proposal (similar to that advocated by Ryan) to “change Medicare into a program that would give future participants a credit toward purchasing private health insurance,” voters over 65 opposed the idea by 51 percent to 25 percent, while voters ages 50 to 64 were in opposition by 51 percent to 32 percent.
A plurality of voters ages 18 to 29 (46 percent to 27 percent) do back a Ryan-type initiative of providing credits with which to buy private insurance, while voters ages 30 to 49 divide almost evenly (38 percent favor and 36 percent oppose).
A Republican wise man, former House GOP Campaign Committee Chairman Tom Davis of Virginia, a strong Ryan fan, identifies the problem: “The secret known by nearly everyone in Congress is that everybody — everybody — likes Medicare.” Davis mentions the handpainted sign spotted at Tea Party protests: “Keep Washington’s hands off my Medicare.”
Other Republicans, not for attribution, fear that the Medicare fight is one Republicans cannot win in campaign 2012.
Even Ryan’s severest critics have to concede that he actually dares to confront the problem of Medicare being threatened by the program running out of money. The real political problem is that the voters most concerned about that public program believe that Democrats, not Republicans, are more committed to preserving and protecting Medicare.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.