Almost immediately after Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, pundits from all across the political spectrum immediately weighed in on how Ryan would impact the race. Although conservatives hailed the selection as a pivot towards an issues-based election (where conservatism would naturally triumph) and leftists hailed it as a capitulation to the conservative wing of the GOP (which has justifiably viewed Romney as not one of them), implicit in both narratives was that Mitt Romney was selecting a vice president from a position of weakness and needed a “game change” to shake up a presidential race he was losing, a belief notably expounded by reliably leftist pundits like E.J. Dionne and Ezra Klein even before Ryan was officially picked. Unsurprisingly, this narrative is convenient for leftists who never miss an opportunity to pillory Romney for being, like reliably leftist Tomasky-types assert, “wimpy”, but also convenient for conservatives who think Obama would be trailing in the polls by double digits if conservatives had merely nominated one of their own.
However, these narratives have one possible problem. From the standpoint of winning elections, Paul Ryan is an absolutely terrible vice presidential candidate. Although the Ryan plan is hardly the politically toxic bill that Democrats think they can use to defeat every Republican ever and usher in a leftist utopia, it still polls relatively poorly. And even if picking Ryan has an upside to the Romney campaign (as some polls even suggest the Ryan plan enjoys lukewarm support), other possible picks such as Portman, Pawlenty, Rubio, or Jindal would have done much more for Romney. In the (truncated) words of Harry Enten, a political analyst for The Guardian (and recent Dartmouth alum), “If...Romney..wanted a swing state...Portman...or...McDonnell. A bona-fide policy wonk...Jindal. Wasn't another boring white guy...Jindal...or Rubio. Blue-collar-cred...Pawlenty.” It's no surprise that Romney had to overrule almost his entire campaign team, including his pollster, in order to pick Ryan.
But there are more motivations for picking a running mate than their ability to get their candidate elected President and there is more to politics than simply winning the closest election at hand (perhaps it is rather telling that so few leftists raise this). Policy and governance matter. After all, Lieberman was an electoral boon for Gore, but if it weren't for Florida's massive failure in basic ballot manufacture, he would have quickly turned into a serious liability as his hawkish foreign policy views would have seriously clashed with the rest of a post-9/11 Gore Administration. John Edwards, handsome, charismatic, and once popular, was a boon to the Kerry campaign, but I don't think I need to get into what horrors he would have unleashed onto a Kerry Administration. And although Joe Biden was picked to soothe expected racial anxieties (working-class man from Scranton!) and provide foreign policy gravitas (experience!), the former proved completely irrelevant when Obama won handily with the highest share of white voters of any Democrat since LBJ. And somewhat ironically, since Biden had long before proven himself a complete and embarrassing ignoramus on all affairs foreign (the highlight being his universally-mocked proposal to reenact Yugoslav 'funtimes' in Iraq), it became necessary for the Obama administration to quarantine Biden from any-and-all foreign policy decision-making. In all fairness, I credit and congratulate the Obama Administration for prudently doing so in a timely manner, although a small danger still looms, as illustrated by Osama bin Laden's plan to assassinate President Obama, a dastardly deed that the late terrorist reasoned would make Biden commander-in-chief, a near-fatal blow to American influence abroad.
On the flip side, Dick Cheney was clearly not picked to help get George W. Bush elected. Calling Wyoming not a swing state is an understatement and I would be amazed to find someone who decided to vote for Bush because of Dick Cheney. But Bush had a strong lead in the polls when Cheney put himself forward for VP consideration and Bush opted for a running mate who he trusted, had personal chemistry with, and knew would help him govern. Although there were many reasons why Al Gore would eventually erase this polling deficit and sail into a relatively comfortable (popular vote) victory, perhaps the gap between the electoral contributions of their running mates was one of them. And although Clinton's selection of Al Gore is a less clear-cut case, having a center-left Southern Democrat pick someone with an almost identical profile was still probably not the most electorally helpful decision, but their similar profiles meant Gore would prove to be a boon to the Clinton Administration.
If Ryan won't help Romney get elected, why was he picked? Unlike Clinton/Gore or Bush/Cheney, “severely conservative” Mitt Romney and actually conservative Paul Ryan are ideological worlds apart. But Ryan's record in Congress shows how he would be a huge boon to Romney when it actually comes time to govern. The first priority of a Romney administration will be to avoid the economic catastrophe that would result from, as many Democrats and some Republicans suggest doing, leaping off the fiscal cliff. Although Paul Ryan has impeccable fiscal conservative credentials, much as it took Nixon to go to China, Ryan has leveraged those credentials to avert economic disaster through legislation he found ideologically repugnant. In 2008, when several Republicans threatened to withhold support from the bipartisan Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (whose failure would have sent the economy spiraling in depression), it took Representative Ryan to coax them into supporting a bill that Republicans generally found idealogically repugnant, but knew was necessary. In 2011, when the economy once again faced economic disaster, the possibility that the debt ceiling would not be raised, Representative Ryan repeated the exact same behavior once again. And in 2013, when America will face the Sword of Damocles that hangs above our prostrate economy today, the fiscal cliff, it may very well take a Vice President Ryan to coax Congress into averting disaster.
Thus, there are two possible calculations that Mitt Romney could have made before selecting Paul Ryan. The first implies that Romney really is in a position of weakness (or has at best even odds), but found ensuring that a Romney Administration wouldn't sail over the fiscal cliff in return for making it less likely for a Romney Administration to exist, was a worthwhile bargain. However, the widespread impression among investors that an Obama administration would be far more willing than a Romney administration to leap off the fiscal cliff means that we may want to consider another possibility. Perhaps Mitt Romney, having had a fabulously successful career in the finance sector, has great faith in his economic forecasting abilities and believes that the economy will further deteriorate to the point where he will probably win regardless of his running mate. Perhaps feeling that Obama had been rejected by the American economy itself and that the election had already been wrapped up, Romney opted to select a running mate based not on what he would bring to a Romney campaign, but based on what he would bring to a Romney Administration. In short, maybe the Ryan pick was not a sign of desperation or worry, but rather a sign of surprisingly self-assured confidence. Of course, I would take this possibility with a grain of salt, but maybe for a few Democrat operatives, it's worth rolling around at night worrying about.