The history of “startling” or controversial choices for Vice-Presidential running mates often means the Presidential candidate is in deep trouble. The safe and most electorally advantaged selection for Romney would have been Ohio Senator Rob Portman who was presumed to be the leading candidate. Portman has the resume one wants in a Vice-President and much of the same knowledge of the budget as Paul Ryan, though having been the OMB head during the big deficit years of George W. Bush would have been fodder for Democrats, it is nothing in comparison to the fodder they will make of the Paul Ryan budget plan and its plan to eliminate Medicare (at least plan 1). Portman’s tenure as Bush’s OMB director has not stopped him from getting Tea Party support and the deficits could be explained away by needing to fund wars in response to 9-11 and popular new programs like the Medicare drug benefit. Ohio is a swing state and a state that is the single biggest bellwether on who wins the Presidential election as its residents have voted for the winner in every Presidential election since 1964. In 2004, Ohio essentially decided the election when Bush won by a mere 2.1% and Ohio’s 20 electoral votes would have swung the Electoral College to John Kerry.
Rarely do Vice Presidential candidates even tip their own states. Al Gore even lost his own state when he ran for President on his own. Clinton in fact chose Gore because he was worried despite being a Southerner himself, being swept away in the South which has become solidly Republican. They did win Tennessee in the 1992 election, but how much Gore should be credited is questionable as he could not carry the state when he ran for President. However, Lyndon Johnson clearly tipped the balance for Kennedy in Texas where they won by only 50,000 votes. Muskie carried Maine for Hubert Humphrey. Paul Ryan could tip the balance in Wisconsin – he did win a Congressional district that voted for Obama barely and Ryan won with almost 64% of the vote. But that might be a testament to good constituent service and the value of being an incumbent – probably running against someone who didn’t believe they would even win. That is a far cry from carrying a state.
Why is Ryan a risky choice? Because Ryan to his credit has had the rare and unique courage to come out with a specific plan to deal with our unsustainable Medicare and Medicaid entitlements. I don’t agree with his solution, but I commend him for having the coverage to take on politically sacred cows. Unfortunately, his plan is not saleable – and resulted in the Republicans losing a special election to fill a House vacancy in upstate New York last year for a seat the Republicans had held for 40 years. Here is a commercial that ran then and why it is amazing that Romney took this risk particularly as seniors were a demographic Romney was winning in polls:
Romney’s polling success with seniors was in part due because Obamacare includes $700 billion in Medicare cuts mostly from cutting payments to providers. This is the same $700 billion Ryan wants to cut from Medicare, but Ryan makes the cut by directly cutting coverage or changing how people are covered. In other words, Ryan’s $700 billion cut looks more threatening to seniors and prospective seniors in particular than Obama’s, though an argument can be made that provider cuts would lead to less service and providers dropping out as many do for Medicaid which has lower reimbursements than Medicare. Optically Ryan’s idea looks more ominous and politically will be portrayed as such. In picking Ryan, Romney took a weapon against Obama and made it a weapon against himself.
Most of the time Presidential candidates make safe picks, so the record on surprise choices is limited, but two of them in recent memory are Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin. In both cases it was hoped that trailing campaigns could be saved by making an historic pick of a female candidate. In both cases, it was hoped the choices would “energize” the base of the respective parties. While nobody questioned Mondale’s liberal credentials he was seen as boring and bland and was running against a popular charismatic incumbent President (Reagan). McCain was viewed with more suspicion by the right wing of the Republican Party because he was not in lock step view with them particularly on immigration to which he had to change his view to get through the Republican primary much the same way Romney has had to move away from his positions that don’t dovetail with the far right. By picking Palin he got someone solidly conservative and youthful versus his old age and that would inject excitement into a faltering campaign.
It bears mentioning that Ferraro was also a sitting House member one of the few ever nominated for Vice President. Ferraro though had less stature in Congress and less legislative accomplishment than Paul Ryan who not only chaired an important committee was given almost carte blanche by his colleagues to make a federal budget, unprecedented in the history of Congress. But both Ferraro and Ryan, not because they are House members per se, but based on their work in House did not spend time on foreign affairs or military matters and did and will get questions about their lack of experience here. That was also an issue with Sarah Palin and her response about Alaska being close to Russia only made it worse. When most people think of readiness to take the Presidency on a moment’s notice they are really talking about foreign policy readiness and the ability to be commander in chief. It was why Barack Obama picked Joe Biden who chaired the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee and had been in the Senate for 30 years. Biden was the fourth most senior member of the Senate when chosen as Vice-President and the 15th longest serving Senator in history – nobody was going to question his fitness for the office. Likewise, George W. Bush as a Governor of Texas with no foreign policy chose Dick Cheney who served as Secretary of Defense including winning the first Gulf War and when he was in the House rose to the number two position on the Republican side there, so it gave Bush someone with extensive federal government experience.
The Republican ticket is the first one I can think of it my lifetime that has had so little foreign policy experience. The Republican spin on this is that Ronald Reagan had no foreign policy experience and he brought down Communist Russia and ended the Cold War. In hindsight, that looks great but let’s remember candidate Reagan. Candidate Reagan was running against an incumbent President (Carter) who was also a former Governor with no foreign policy experience before entering office that had Americans being held hostage in Iran for a year, our embassy there over run and had a failed rescue mission when American aircraft crashed into each other. Reagan also has George H.W. Bush as his running mate who had run the CIA and was US Ambassador to China, so with George Bush as his running mate and against the backdrop of Carter’s ineptitude – Reagan’s lack of foreign policy skills hardly mattered.
Except in times of war, Presidential elections will be decided on domestic issues. More so than most elections with the nation not in a “hot” war, with our troops withdrawn from Iraq and leaving Afghanistan and with unemployment still high – foreign policy has not gotten attention in this election so far. That will change with the debates and there is no way for a Romney-Ryan ticket to look good in foreign policy. Obama is an incumbent Commander in Chief who won a Nobel Peace prize, killed Bin Laden, extracted our troops from the Middle East and has largely followed the national security measures of George W. Bush including keeping Guantanamo open much to chagrin of his liberal supporters and at odds with his own 2008 campaign. So there is not much for Romney to attack on Obama on except his failure to slow Iran down from getting a nuclear weapon and Romney cannot say too much on that because people are going to ask what would you do differently and Romney is adept at not taking firm stances unless pressured by the far right on Obamacare, abortion etc. So Ryan here adds no value and if anything is a net negative because of his lack of foreign policy experience.
Beyond Geraldine Ferraro we don’t have a lot of example of sitting House members as Vice Presidential nominees. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 VP choice was an obscure House member from upstate New York mostly likely chosen to given the ticket an East –West balance as Republicans in the Northeast still mattered back then (the Rockefeller wing of the party). Goldwater lost in a landslide but his VP nominee was not the reason. There has some mention of John Nance Garner who FDR’s Vice President in his first two terms as being the last sitting member of the House elected Vice-President. It needs to be kept in mind Garner was the Speaker of the House and that puts him in a different category than other House members and he also challenged FDR for President for the Democratic nomination. FDR’s choice of Garner here was much the same as Kennedy picking Lyndon Johnson. Both Garner and Johnson were from Texas and both FDR and Kennedy from the Northeast. Garner was Speaker of House and Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader – something many have forgotten and Johnson had also run against Kennedy for the nomination. Both were examples of geographical ticket balancing and creating party unity. A sitting House member other than one has been Speaker has last been elected Vice-President in 1908 when James Sherman was Howard Taft’s Vice-President. Sherman notably is the last Vice President to die in office. At the time there was no constitutional mechanism to fill the vacancy and the office remained vacant until the next election. Gerald Ford was actually the last House member to make it to Vice President but he was appointed to fill the vacancy caused by Agnew’s resignation and he was the House Minority Leader at the time (meaning if the Republicans had controlled the House he would have been the Speaker).
Ryan’s nomination has much in common with Ferraro’s and Palin’s although many people will not initially see the commonality other than Ferraro being a House member. They were all risky picks in attempt to save a campaign that the Presidential candidate had concluded he was way behind in. The last two didn’t work and I don’t think this one will either.