Frank Rich on the National Circus: Ryan’s Bungled Rollout

By
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

So, Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his VP. The consensus seems to be that this was close to a Hail Mary play, if not quite a Sarah Palin Hail Mary. Do you see it that way?
No. For all clichéd gab about this being a “game-changer,” we already know that it’s not. The polls show at most a mild bounce so far. Many Americans have not a clue as to who Ryan is except as a card-carrying representative of the second most despised brand in America after the local cable company: Congress. His anointment is a dramatic move only in the sense that compared to choosing Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman, anything is a dramatic move. Only in the GOP does the pairing of two wealthy conservative white guys constitute a diversity ticket, presumably because only one of them has openly embraced Ayn Rand. It’s a far cry from choosing an inexperienced woman governor from Alaska as a running mate, and I doubt the Ryan choice was even intended as a game-changer. The real intention was for Romney to nail down the GOP base. It says a lot about the state of his campaign that as late as mid-August it still had not won over large swaths of that 75 percent of the GOP that wanted Anyone but Romney for much of the primary process.

Romney introduced Ryan on the USS Wisconsin, a retired battleship. Any memories of "Mission Accomplished"?
In an election cycle where comparisons to the 2004 race abound, here’s another link between Romney and his fellow Massachusetts patrician John Kerry. Though no one seems to remember it now, Kerry officially announced his presidential candidacy in the fall of 2003 in front of a docked aircraft carrier — the Yorktown — in Dixie (Mount Pleasant, S.C.), with hokey music (“Anchors Aweigh” in Kerry’s case) as a soundtrack. It looks like the prototype for the Romney rollout of Ryan, and it was also seemingly a lame attempt to compete with “Mission Accomplished,” the disastrously premature George W. Bush Iraq war victory jig of four months earlier. But when Kerry dipped into this military shtick, he at least was an actual veteran who had fought heroically in an actual war. Neither Romney nor Ryan have any military experience or, for that matter, any foreign policy experience. (Nor have any of Romney’s five strapping sons served in uniform, though presumably, out of common patriotic decency, at least one of them will have to be pressed into service should a President Romney launch a war with Iran.) 

 What do you think of the other stagecraft in the Ryan rollout?
For all the planted stories saying that Romney made this pick at the start of the month and then brilliantly kept it under wraps, that was not the message conveyed by what actually took place. It looked instead like a hasty move, tossed together quickly to satisfy the ever-shriller demands of the hard-line Wall Street Journal–Weekly Standard elites to put Ryan on the ticket. Why introduce Ryan to the world at 9:20 a.m. on a Saturday when no one is watching television (and perhaps literally no one in the western half of the country)? Why do it when the ensuing coverage would have to compete with the Olympics climax? Why don’t you take the time to round up some minority faces as window dressing for the virtually all-white crowd standing behind Romney at the event? Why rush out the announcement when you have yet to prepare answers for all the predictable press questions the ticket would raise? In the short time since Saturday, Romney has repeatedly stumbled and fudged when asked how his budget would differ from the Ryan budget that many find toxic. The best Romney can come up with is stuff like “We’ll take a look at the differences” and “We haven’t gone through piece by piece.” Why haven’t you, man? You are running for president of the United States and you haven’t done your homework about your own ticket mate? Ryan, too, has proven to be underprepared, equivocating and stammering about Medicare and taxes even in a friendly interview with Brit Hume of Fox News on Tuesday. Then again, even the much promoted “Mitt’s VP” App, which promised to alert supporters to the pick “first,” was a bust; it didn’t cough up the Ryan announcement until well after everyone had heard the news.

But still some Republicans and pundits feel Ryan will be a plus for Romney because he brings “energy” to the ticket.
Don’t the same talking heads always say that the presidential candidate has been given “a jolt of energy” by his new running mate, no matter what the year or the party? In Romney’s case, to be sure, any increased animation makes him look like a speed freak next to his usual robotic self. And, as with the previous GOP ticket, “energy” is also intended as a synonym for youth: People talk about Ryan’s effect on Romney as they did about Palin’s on McCain — as if it were a Viagra effect. But is that necessarily a good thing? If Bush-Cheney and Obama-Biden are any indication, voters of late seem to prefer older “wise men” types as the No. 2 to a young or young-ish No. 1. In any event, the biggest effect Ryan has actually had is to turn the campaign’s topic A to Medicare. Supposedly it was a GOP truism of 2012 that every day not spent talking about the “Obama economy” is a lost day for the Romney campaign. If so, there have been only lost days since the Ryan announcement. The GOP campaign is now so identified with tea party ideology that it might as well reboot the Barry Goldwater campaign slogan of 1964: “A choice, not an echo.”

One thing Ryan has that Romney does not is some very close ties to tea party sugar daddies — the Brothers Koch, of course, first among them. How much do you think Ryan's access to that additional cash played into his selection? And do you expect his entry into the race (as opposed to, say, Pawlenty’s or Portman's) is going to even further widen the fund-raising gap?
Not much. I think the fund-raising gap would be as big no matter whom Romney put on the ticket. The billionaire sugar daddies want Obama out of office, period, and to them, the GOP ticket, no matter who’s on it, is the only game in town for achieving that end.

The Times ran a lengthy expose this week about the possibly criminal dealings of Sheldon Adelson's former fixer in China. This isn't the first noise we've heard about bribery allegations involving Adelson's company. Can the Obama campaign hang this on Romney in any way?
Yes. It shows how much power Adelson has over the GOP that Ryan would place near the top of his first week to-do list a dash out to Vegas to kiss Adelson’s ring (presumably a pinky ring). Adelson’s gambling empire, Las Vegas Sands, is the subject of two different major federal investigations, one by the Justice Department and another by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It is kosher to ask whether Adelson is lavishing as much as (or maybe more than) $100 million on the GOP not just to promote his hawkish views about Israel but also to try to shut down those investigations in a Romney administration. Meanwhile, journalists, and not just at the Times but at ProPublica, Frontline, the Journal, and NBC News, among no doubt others, are continuing to dig into Adelson’s empire. What happens in Vegas — and in the Sands’s Macau outpost as well — will not stay in Vegas between now and Election Day. This could be the sleeper “October Surprise” of the 2012 campaign.

Joe Biden told supporters in Virginia yesterday that by rolling back Wall Street reforms, Romney would "put y'all back in chains." Republicans, predictably, screamed bloody murder. How does that rank among recent Bidenisms?
It’s certainly one of the dumber ones. It was a complete stretch, and the use of a Southern “y’all” to pander to African-American voters was embarrassing. But what’s been fascinating is the Romney campaign’s over-response. This was a remark by the vice-president, not the president, and it should have been answered by Ryan or some other Romney surrogate. Instead, Romney himself did another round of over-the-top interviews whining about negative campaigning and accusing Obama of practicing “hate.” (Even as Romney’s entire campaign is itself one long attack on Obama.) Responding with this level of feigned outrage to a Bidenism makes him look like a rich guy who can’t stand the heat, if not a Gingrich-esque crybaby.

No one would call Chris Christie a crybaby. He makes others howl. A good idea to have him as the GOP convention’s keynote speaker?
He is going to be giving this speech on an August night the week before Labor Day. Who besides the diehards are going to be watching? Another non-game-changer.