Picked by Obama

Stephanie Burt

Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is a seven-term congressman from small-town Wisconsin, best known for his radical shrink-the-government fiscal proposals, though he's also quite conservative on everything else. A year and a half ago, the ‘Ryan budget’ put him in the national spotlight – with some help from Obama (on which more below) – and made him a hero on the right. It proposes making big cuts in many federal programmes and turning Medicare into a voucher system that would not keep up with healthcare inflation: the government would save money because old people would go untreated or pay more. Compared to many Republican proposals, it’s full of detail, though its arithmetic appears not to hold up.

Ryan has spent most of his adult life in Congress; he's a devotee of Ayn Rand and an articulate speaker who excites free-marketeers and Tea Party types, especially in and around DC. He looks good on TV, and could make his home state competitive, but other VP contenders might have helped Romney with Latinos nationally, or with multiple swing states in the Mountain West. Now the Republican ticket has two pasty, northern, privileged, white-collar white guys. Most of all, Ryan's presence on the ticket makes it easier for Obama to cast the election not as a debate about the present (are you better off now than four years ago?) but as a choice between two kinds of future.

Most commentators seem to agree that Romney wouldn’t have chosen Ryan had he been ahead in the polls. Ryan, and his budget blueprint, are divisive; he proposes big changes (to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer), and – unlike George W. Bush – says that they're big. As Nate Silver has said, you don't make a risky appointment like that to protect a lead; you make it to change the discussion, to shake things up, risking the disgust of some independents in order to raise the enthusiasm of your base, and to look courageous in the eyes of people (i.e. political professionals) who place a high value on risky symbolic gestures, no matter what those gestures mean.

Ryan's appointment confirms that Romney’s team cares a lot about elites; both the kind who write for newspapers in New York and Washington and the kind (they do not wholly overlap) who bring big-dollar donors to conservative campaigns. Ryan's budget may involve some very dodgy maths, but he has a reputation as a serious thinker, and seems to say what he thinks: Romney looks more serious – perhaps ‘very serious’ – about economic and fiscal policy now, and he's done what the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has been asking explicitly for weeks, and subtly for months. Rupert Murdoch says he’s delighted.

The Romney camp appears to think that non-elite voters don’t care very much about, or pay very much attention to, actual policy proposals. When pollsters tell voters what Ryan's budget does, using Ryan's language, the voters hate it. But maybe the voters, unless they're on the phone with pollsters, aren't listening to policy proposals, or maybe they just don't believe what they hear: there's some evidence that voters reject accurate accounts of the way Romney's proposals favour the rich as too ludicrous to be true. Romney will have to defend – or distance himself very awkwardly from – Ryan's policies; but those defences, or failures of defence, won't matter if most voters don't know or care what those policies are (or if enough Democrat voters have been disenfranchised by new voter ID laws).

Romney may also have picked Ryan because he thinks he needs more volunteers. McCain's choice of Sarah Palin in 2008 was ridiculous and counterproductive in many respects, but in one way it got him just what he ordered. Previously empty desks and chairs in field offices were suddenly filled by Palin fans, who went knocking on doors and picking up telephones. Will Ryan's outspoken fiscal positions lead Tea Party activists to ‘Romney for President’ offices in Las Cruces or Dayton, much as Palin's alignments brought conservative religious voters to McCain? Don't bet on it; unlike in 2008, conservatives are already motivated (because they have something to vote against), and the Tea Party types who took over the news cycle in 2010 don’t have anything like the demographic extent of America’s right-wing evangelicals.

Ryan is most articulate, most memorable, as a Jeremiah, explaining with passion and sincerity that the US government, and the US itself, are doomed, doomed, unless we eliminate deficits, rewrite entitlement programmes so they're not entitlements, and do all we can to stop spending (without raising taxes). Highly informed voters know what they think of that claim already, whether or not they believe it; low information voters will tune out – it's just too depressing – just as they tune out warnings about climate change. In some ways Ryan reminds me of that admirable, sad Midwesterner Walter Mondale, telling the nation that we would have to raise taxes, and getting crushed by Reagan, in 1984; Mondale was right, and Ryan is probably wrong, but the tone is the same. Also, while telegenic, he can be cold and mean. New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, has made that sort of behaviour one of his signatures; it's one reason Christie isn't running for vice president. But Ryan is.

No one did more to make Ryan famous than Obama, who has pointed to him since early 2010 as a Republican whose ideas he would take seriously. Taking them seriously turned out to mean producing, repeatedly, point-by-point rebuttals of them: Ryan felt burned. The ideas in the Ryan plan, with its big cuts and phased-out entitlements, were distilled, explicit, no-fooling articulations of what Republicans who want to drown government in a bathtub have long sought; Ryan crystallises the debate over fiscal policy that Obama, and many others on the American centre-left (such as it is), want to have. You might even say that Obama has picked his opponent. But Republican strategists who like Ryan's fresh face, articulate energy and apparent command of public policy might respond: be careful what you wish for.