Paul Ryan took the national stage earlier this summer as Washington’s most famous wonk. The Wisconsin Congressman was known as a master of budget policy with grand ideas for restructuring entitlement programs and slashing domestic spending. It seemed that Mitt Romney had doubled down on controversial fiscal policies like major long-term reductions to Medicare, the consequences be damned.
But it was not the wonky Ryan who showed up onstage in Tampa on Wednesday night. Instead, Ryan served as a cutting prosecutor of President Obama’s record, a cultural beacon for the middle class and an energetic, telegenic jolt of energy at a somewhat humdrum convention. Beloved in conservative circles for his alleged bravery on fiscal issues, Ryan made little effort to detail his ticket’s budget plans, which would involve a wrenching reduction in the size of government. And on the most sensitive issue Ryan has tackled in Congress — reining in Medicare — he skipped the details of his ideas, instead repeating his attacks on the Medicare cuts in Obama’s health care law.
It was a slashing but attention-grabbing address that electrified the delegates in Tampa and featured a few of this campaign’s more memorable lines. “The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we’re going to stop it,” Ryan declared, charging, as he has for weeks now, that Obama is shortchanging seniors to expand coverage for the mostly low-income uninsured. (The reality is rather more complicated.) Ryan also drew rhetorical blood by channeling the frustration of a nation unable to fight its way out of economic malaise: “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life,” he said, a vivid fillip of which some speechwriter should be proud.
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At the heart of Ryan’s speech was the charge that Obama has failed to lead the country out of its economic crisis, wasting time and money on a stimulus that didn’t work as advertised and dodging hard, long-term budget questions. Unlike Chris Christie — who leveled a similar case the night before — Ryan was stinging without seeming nasty. He was impassioned without sounding angry.
But he also fudged facts to the brink of rank dishonesty, implying that Obama had presided over the closure of a General Motors plant in his district, which actually closed before Obama took office; slamming the President for rejecting the findings of his Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission when Ryan himself, a commission member, voted against them; and neglecting Obama’s quite serious grand-bargain budget negotiations with GOP leaders in Congress last summer.
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There was a certain dishonesty of omission. Ryan made no effort to explain his own critique that Medicare is an unsustainable program unless Washington imposes dramatic and unpopular changes that could force seniors to pay substantially more for their health care. He named the goal of limiting federal spending to 20% of gross domestic product, making no effort to brace the country for the potentially traumatic implications of that figure for the role of government.
Obama campaign hands in Chicago may have chewed their nails as they watched Ryan’s deft self-introduction to his national audience. Ryan showed off his young and telegenic wife and kids, noted the tragic and humanizing death of his father when he was just 16 and copiously singled out his mother, whom he uses effectively as a symbol to demonstrate that his budget program couldn’t possibly be as heartless to seniors as Democrats claim.
Continuing an important theme from Tuesday night, Ryan struck clear notes designed to resonate with middle-class voters who may be skeptical that Romney truly understands their daily troubles. “I live on the same block where I grew up. We belong to the same parish where I was baptized. Janesville is that kind of place,” Ryan said. He effectively celebrated Romney as a good man of faith who, like him, “grew up in the heartland.” Ryan and Romney are said to share a deep love of data, but Ryan’s description of his running mate revolved around heart and soul, including an endearing tweak of Romney’s musical taste. (“There are the songs on his iPod which I’ve heard on the campaign bus and on many hotel elevators.”)
By all accounts, Republican luminaries and Romney himself were drawn to Ryan for his policy wonkery — for his love and understanding of free-market theories as propagated by the likes of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Jack Kemp. But while Ryan’s speech celebrated the free market, that was not its lasting power. Its success was rhetorical and emotional, not theoretical. The wonk, it turns out, is quite a politician. And that may be just what Mitt Romney needs.