My new story in this week’s print edition of TIME is about politics, but it’s also a kind of ghost story. The ghost is Sarah Palin, who haunted Mitt Romney’s search for a running mate from the beginning. The one thing Romney’s team knew they could not do was pick someone who’d be branded a lightweight like Palin. In choosing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney has tapped an anti-Palin: a policy wonk and budget expert whose smarts no one doubts. “If you look at the vice presidential history, I think this is the first guy to get there based on policy,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, a friend of Ryan’s told me.
The question is whether Romney got more substance than he really wants. The choice of Ryan immediately reframed a campaign debate largely based on the economy around Ryan’s budget plans, which call for dramatic cuts to federal spending and an overhaul of Medicare. Democrats launched their attacks before the confetti had hit the ground. “Romney is totally tethered to the Ryan Plan,” says Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen, a leading party strategist. Like many Democrats, Van Hollen says he likes Ryan personally–“we sort of hit it off,” he tells me. When Ryan became House Budget Committee chairman in early 2011, and Van Hollen the committee’s ranking member, the two men went out for beers on Capitol Hill and discussed how they could disagree on policy without making it personal. But disagree they do. The Ryan plan, Van Hollen says, “is an uncompromising right-wing Tea Party manifesto that enshrines the Grover Norquist pledge and provides big tax breaks to wealthy Americans at the expense of everyone and everything else.” (Other than that, he loves it!)
Republican campaign strategists are in a minor panic about the impact Democratic “Mediscare” attacks on Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher-style system might have in the 2012 elections. But Ryan’s defenders say not to worry. “Paul is the best communicator,” says McCarthy. “He’s not from a Republican district. But he has won it every time by going out talking and listening to the people. He has done it based on ideas.”
Still, “it was a risk” to choose Ryan, says Dan Schnur, a former communications director to John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign now at the University of Southern California. “If this ends up making the election about entitlements, then that’s a much steeper hill for Romney to climb.”
You can read more about the pros and cons of Romney’s Ryan pick, the thinking at Romney headquarters in Boston, and the things Ryan has in common with Palin after all … by clicking here.