For the second time in as many cycles, a panicked, plausibly-centrist Republican presidential nominee selected a relatively unknown, extremist running mate. By doing so, Mitt Romney jettisoned the (apparently losing) message of his campaign to date — “I’m different from Barack Obama in important but unspecified ways” — and embraced, in turn, a highly-specified, woefully unpopular approach to drastically cutting the size of government, one that stands to leave all but the super-rich in the dust and dark. And that’s what the Catholics have to say about it. Elsewhere, the choice identifies specific policy preferences, thereby breaking the cardinal rule that’s governed Romney’s campaign to date, and leaving him open for the first time in the entire campaign to actual, policy-based criticism. Now that we know what Romney stands for, the real fight can start. And it’s already turning against him.
Indeed, the Ryan approach to fiscal sanity is so wildly unpopular that it’s led to the loss of safe Republican state seats in single-issue races, a trend that likely has broader significance. Even mainline conservatives balk at his theories: the Ryan budget finds its intellectual force in a philosophy so extreme that William Buckley himself fought to expunge its influence on the Republican Party:
Buckley felt that perhaps his greatest achievement was to have repulsed the two principal extremist threats to the movement in the 1960s: the John Birch Society and the “Objectivists” centered around the writer Ayn Rand. As various commentators have pointed out, the Tea Party has revived and re-popularized the Birch Society’s outlandish views, and no Republican leader has attempted to refute them. Now that the party’s vice-presidential candidate is the most prominent Rand-influenced politician in the land—Ryan said in 2005 that Rand was “the reason I got involved in public service”—the other half of Buckley’s achievement has come undone.
Candidate Romney must know that he’s allied himself with the political equivalent of nuclear waste: he’s already begun distancing himself from the very policies that make Ryan a popular conservative pick. Query whether that effort stands any chance at success. If the Democratic Party (and, yes, the media) could use Sarah Palin to hang theocratic, fundamentalist conservatism on John McCain, there’s no reason to think Romney won’t suffer for his running mate’s beliefs. It’s already begun. Ryan will lose Romney the election. (Go outside and spit!)
We can expect two results. First, per TNR, Romney will escape most of the blame for his loss. Second, the Republican Party just might learn its lesson. We’ve argued before that McCain’s loss in 2008 allowed Republicans to indulge the absurd fantasy (believed by most, rejected by others) that the real problem with Bush, and therefore McCain, was that they just weren’t conservative enough. Hence the Tea Party, hence Glenn Beck, hence our four years of gun-toting socialist hunters. A loss following months of all-out assault on the Ryan budget will be difficult, if not impossible, to fit within that false narrative. It could be cathartic for the Republican brand in a way that a Romney/Portman (moderate/moderate) loss might not have been, prompting real introspection and raising serious questions about the direction the Party has taken over the past four years. Of course this possibility assumes that Republicans retain some ability to engage in honest self-reflection. For the sake of Obama’s increasingly likely second term, we have to believe our opponents are not beyond redemption, and could learn to debate again – and lose with dignity – without resorting to moral panic, filibusters, and secret holds. Fingers crossed.