What is the political calculation of the Paul Ryan pick (to the extent that it’s a calculation at all)? It’s not a ploy to gin up the conservative base, which is already rabidly motivated. It’s an attempt to claim for the Romney campaign the political high ground. Romney is now running on a meta message about himself: We are serious, substantive, and good; they are frivolous, dishonest, and mean.
Romney had already adopted the message before announcing the Ryan pick. In an interview with Chuck Todd, Romney piously called for both campaigns to forswear attacking one another’s personal history or business career: “our campaign would be — helped immensely if we had an agreement between both campaigns that we were only going to talk about issues and that attacks based upon — business or family or taxes or things of that nature.” So, under this thoughtful approach, Obama couldn’t attack Romney’s business record, which he’s running on, but Romney could attack Obama’s political record. It’s unclear whether this truce would allow Romney to continue to attack Obama for not having a business career.
The Washington Free Beacon, a new entrant in the right-wing media race to the bottom whose founding credo (“Do Unto Them”) is an abnegation of any standards of intellectual honesty or fair play, fired off a furious editorial raging at Obama’s “ugly” and “dishonest” tactics. Karl Rove endorsed it, and not coincidentally, Rove’s super-PAC on Friday unleashed an ad wallowing in moral indignation at Obama’s devious personal attacks. The ad, at a minute and seventeen seconds long, is clearly not intended for television, and is at least partly aimed at the political press corps, which has already expressed near-unanimous disgust at a pro-Obama ad accusing Romney of indifference to, and at least partial responsibility for, the death of the wife of a laid-off employee.
The as-yet-unaired ad was pretty bad, all right, and Jay Carney’s disavowal of responsibility, after having angrily demanded that Romney denounce an ad by a right-wing super-PAC, was comic. But were it not for Ryan, Romney’s effort to cast himself as the champion of high-minded and honest campaigning would be laughed out of court. Romney began his campaign by unleashing a hilariously dishonest ad showing Obama from 2008 quoting John McCain and portraying the quote as Obama’s own words, and when pressed defended the ad on the grounds that “that’s his voice.” Romney never stopped issuing a stream of utter fabrications, particularly employing his campaign’s favorite device of stitching together Obama quotations or pulling them out of context to create new meanings for them. (When Obama recently argued that reducing the deficit through a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes on the rich “worked” in the nineties, Romney turned it into an ad portraying Obama as having claimed the Obama economic program had worked — as in, he is unconcerned about economic suffering.) His campaign has accused Obama of launching a “war on religion” and deployed a surrogate to discuss his youthful drug use and call him un-American.
How can Romney, whose campaign spent months relentlessly smearing Republican and Democratic foe alike and spitting derision at the naïveté of anybody who objected, reclaim his political virginity? By bathing in Ryan’s soft glow.
One underrated aspect of the new GOP veep nominee’s political arsenal is a recurring persona of his that you might call Sad Paul Ryan. Sad Paul Ryan is less an ideological crusader and more like a wide-eyed boy who has come to Washington full of hope only to have his youthful dreams crushed by nastiness and name-calling. How Ryan’s high-minded belief in the purity of political debate managed to survive his rise to power as a Washington staffer, I cannot say. So emotionally vulnerable is Sad Paul Ryan that even a statistical recitation of the effects of his plan will nearly reduce him to tears. He is capable of complaining that Obama will “affix views to your opponent that they do not have so you can demonize them” — two sentences after accusing Obama of advocating “socialized medicine.”
Yet Sad Paul Ryan appears so genuinely sad when he says such things — quite likely because he lacks the self-awareness that might complicate his earnest dejection — that he melts the cynicism of hardened observers. So Romney’s advisers are now proclaiming, “We are betting that a substantive campaign, conducted on the high ground, and focused primarily on jobs and the economy, will trump a campaign that is designed to appeal to our worst instincts,” and the candidate himself is delivering lines such as “Mr. President, take your campaign out of the gutter and let's talk about issues.” (Talking About the Issues is Ryan’s thing, unless talking about the Issues means discussing any specific element contained within his plan, in which case he would rather talk about bowhunting or catfish noodling.) Romney and Ryan inaugurated their new high-road campaign with the charge that Obama “robbed” $700 billion from Medicare, declining to mention that their own plans keep the same cuts in place.
Now, adopting a persona of high-mindedness does not have a perfect track record in American politics. But it’s not a hopeless gambit, either. George W. Bush in 2000 successfully convinced the campaign press corps that Al Gore was a serial liar, and when the press pack suddenly decided in October of that year that Al Gore’s lies were the story of the race, his poll numbers fatally swooned. Many undecided voters pay little attention to the issues and simply form impressions of the candidates, rooted in broad personal appraisal.
The political upside Romney is trying to capitalize upon with Ryan is his reputation for sincerity and high-mindedness. In this sense, the Ryan pick is an attempt to capture the center — not with substance, but with (perceived) character.