Ever since Mitt Romney announced he had selected Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential candidate, there has been much rending of sackcloth by pundits in Washington about whether or not his ambitious budget and entitlement reform proposals will help or hurt the GOP. However, Paul Ryan brings one other potentially decisive factor to the presidential race that few have even begun to reckon with:
What if Paul Ryan goes out on the campaign trail and the American people just decide they really, really like the guy?
Sure, he has plenty of superficial appeal—he's youthful, handsome, articulate, uncommonly focused, and a sincere family man who has no real skeletons in his closet. Even his detractors would probably concede those superlatives, and these qualities certainly won't hurt his electoral chances.
But at only 42, Ryan also has a surprising amount of political experience and success. He's been elected seven times in a district that's no cakewalk for a conservative Republican. In 2008, 51 percent of his district voted for Barack Obama. Ryan's clearly had to campaign and hone his retail political skills.
Of course, campaigning across a small corner of Wisconsin is a far cry from being thrust on the national political stage. However, if Ryan's campaign rally in suburban Denver today is any indication—one of his first solo outings on the presidential campaign trail—he's managing the transition effortlessly.
For one, he does local color well. It doesn't hurt that he's been vacationing in Colorado for years. He speaks fondly of coming to Colorado to fish for "brookies and rainbow" and the fitness buff casually mentions he's been "climbing fourteeners for over 20 years." (I have many Colorado relatives, and had to explain to multiple members of the press pool that this was local slang for peaks in the Rockies that rise above 14,000 feet.) Indeed, it was these on-pitch references to life in the Centennial State that local newsradio powerhouse KOA had on loop the rest of the day.
Having won over the crowd with pleasantries, Ryan imperceptibly worked his speech to a crescendo. The famous wonk wisely didn't stump on intricacies of, say, the Wyden-Ryan Medicare reform proposals. He made a series of moral arguments:
Guess what? Government doesn't regulate happiness, government doesn't define your happiness—you define it for yourself. That's how we do it in America. What we are offering is a very clear contrast, a very clear choice. What kind of country do you want to have? What kind of people do you want to be? We want that American idea, that opportunity society with a safety net that's there to help people can't help themselves, that's there to help people get back on their feet who are struggling. But it's the opportunity society, the American ideal, where you can meet your potential, nothing is stopping you from meeting your destiny. Our job is to get the barriers out of your way, it's not to look at people who are working hard, who are succeeding, with resentment. It's to say, 'here's how to get things done, we want more people to be successful, because if more people are successful, America grows and we create jobs."
At that point, the crowd in the Lakewood High School gymnasium cut him off, pounded the bleachers, and offered a full 22 seconds of applause. But they weren't done yet—an older man in the crowd stood up, pointed at Ryan and screamed "Hey look, no teleprompter!" The crowd roared in approval, not because it was gratuitous swipe at the president, but because they were so grateful that Ryan was providing not just competing policy vision to Obama, but a substantive rhetorical alternative. And they clearly liked what they were hearing. Ryan finally continued:
When we know what we believe, we know what we need to do, and what we need is leadership. Here is our commitment to you—we're not going to duck the tough issues, we are going to lead. We're not going to blame others for our mistakes, we're going to to take responsibility.
It should probably be noted that the other guy running for vice president was also campaigning today. Biden said Romney and Ryan are "gonna put y'all back in chains," just in case the rhetorical contrast between leadership and blame isn't clear enough.
But let's not get cocky—Ryan is just starting out, and a lot could go wrong. Maybe he benefited from a friendly Republican crowd at the rally today, maybe next week he'll botch a silly question on the nightly news and the media will pounce, and maybe by November he'll have whithered under the spotlight and proven he's Just Not Up To It.
Or more likely, these kinds of electric campaign appearences are harbinger of things to come. The Obama campaign should be very afraid.