The Paul Ryan Paradox: GOP ‘Ideas Man’ Playing Conventional Campaign Role

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BuzzFeed has aggregated footage of Paul Ryan on the campaign telling the same joke over and over, in nearly the same blue shirt:

It’s not really fair to rap Ryan for trotting out the same material, if that’s the point of posting the video. Traveling the country delivering facsimiles of the same speech to different audiences is what candidates do, just as stand-up comics sling the same zingers night after night. But the fact that the riff has a fixed place in Ryan’s routine is telling, and not just because bureaucratic dysfunction is a Republican theme. Paul Ryan, darling of the conservative intelligentsia, the party’s reigning Ideas Man, is serving up a lot of jocular patter on the stump these days. His routine is sprinkled with jokes and jabs, humanizing details and genuflection to local traditions. Again, this is what politicians do. But Ryan was supposed to be different. Watching his first two weeks as vice-presidential nominee of the GOP, you might get the sense that Mitt Romney picked Ryan for his ice-fishing prowess and knack for needling President Obama, not because he’s the architect of a sweeping plan to address the nation’s budget crisis.

The way Romney’s team has deployed Ryan is striking in light of the reputation he built during seven terms on Capitol Hill. Ryan’s spot on the ticket is the unlikely product of a long and lonely ideological crusade. (It wasn’t until the Tea Party takeover of 2010 that Republican leaders fully embraced his road map to overhaul the U.S. entitlement system.) Romney touts his running mate as a budget wonk, an intellectual leader with a distinct vision and the tenacity to implement it.

But as Romney’s No. 2, Ryan has been recast in a relatively conventional role: an upbeat, telegenic, manifestly smart politician who connects well with crowds. He has jettisoned the budget jargon and embraced familiar Republican tropes that energize audiences. His rallies are laced with references to Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment. He makes teleprompter jokes. At a stop in Pennsylvania this week, Ryan — a devout Catholic and ardent outdoorsman — told the crowd he was “happy to be clinging to my guns and religion,” invoking a four-year-old remark in which Obama appeared to speak derisively about those things.

Ryan’s line was not just a dig at the President but also part of a concerted effort to define the vice-presidential candidate, 42, for Republican and independent voters. Right now the GOP ticket seems as intent on showcasing Ryan’s biography as his budgets. At a homecoming rally in Wisconsin, Ryan told the crowd that his “veins run with cheese, bratwurst and a little Spotted Cow, Leinie’s and some Miller.” In Pittsburgh, he waved a Terrible Towel; at the Iowa state fair, he swapped tips on cow milking. Strolling the fairgrounds, he parried questions from reporters: “We’ll play stump the running mate later.”

Ryan is known on Capitol Hill as someone willing to spar with the press over policy. As vice-presidential nominee, his exchanges with the media have been in short supply. “I don’t want to get wonky on you,” Ryan has told interlocutors when pressed for details. For days, the best interaction his traveling press corps got was a hard-won peace sign, flashed from the front of the plane. Meanwhile, Ryan’s reputation for wonkiness has served as a stand-in for policy specifics. Romney tried the same during a recent news conference in South Carolina, scrawling a comparison of the two parties’ Medicare plans on a whiteboard. The display was a reminder of his number-crunching acumen; never mind that the analysis amounted to little more than asking voters if they preferred Medicare to bust the budget or not.

When he has discussed Medicare, Ryan has done so gingerly, emphasizing the President’s “raid” on the program to pay for Obamacare and the fact that current seniors get to keep the status quo. As Dave Weigel wrote:

Ryan alternates between the specific, like when the plans would switch over, and the vague. He’ll keep “the promise” of Medicare, which is different than keeping Medicare as it is. He’ll keep a “guarantee” of coverage, which is different than keeping it a full-coverage entitlement. I don’t see anyone who’s already inclined to vote Republican having a problem with this.

This is the paradox of Ryan’s role in the race: he’s on the ticket to imbue it with ideological heft, but political caution preempts discussion of his signature ideas. “We want this debate,” Ryan likes to say about the brewing battle over Medicare. “We need this debate, and we are going to win this debate.” But so far, the Romney campaign hasn’t deviated much from the traditional script.