Why Paul Ryan was a historic disappointment

Paul Ryan during G.O.P. response to Obama's 2012 budget. ()
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Blake Zeff

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Remember when Paul Ryan's selection as Mitt Romney's running mate was going to elevate the conversation and make it more grown-up?

Shortly after the selection, the campaign issued a press release with the following headline: THE CHOICE: “SUBSTANCE-DRIVEN RACE” VS. “VICIOUS, SHAMEFUL.

Ryan, we were told, was not only going to add intellectual heft to the ticket, but he'd be uniquely suited to explain the Republican House budget plan to voters. Even New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, predicted that the choice would result in “an intelligent conversation on the budget, on finances, on priorities, on specifics like Medicare.”

Plus, the thinking went, Ryan’s youthful charisma would motivate the Republican base and attract middle-of-the-road voters looking for fresh options. Now, about three months later, it's plain to see that the results have not been transformative, either in terms of the tone of the presidential contest or Romney's chances of winning it.

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On the score of elevating a policy "conversation," Ryan has decidedly not lived up to the hype.

After the Romney campaign made the strategic choice to embrace some of the principles of Ryan’s budget without the specific details, the candidate was left in the position of having to defend the vague, new framework on offer. During an interview on Fox News, Ryan was asked by host Brit Hume when the plan would balance the federal budget, but he couldn’t even begin to answer the question. “I don’t know exactly when it balances,” he said, telling the veteran newsman of four decades, “I don’t want to get wonky on you but we haven’t run the numbers on that specific plan.”

On another Fox News interview, host Chris Wallace asked Ryan to show the math underlying his budget plan.

“Let’s talk specifics,” Wallace said. “You’re the master of the budget. So, briefly, let’s go through the plan.”

After the interviewer asked Ryan about the Obama campaign’s allegation that the Romney-Ryan tax plan would cost $5 trillion over 10 years, Ryan said it wasn’t true. But when Wallace followed up twice about what it would cost, Ryan would only say, each time, that it’s “revenue neutral."

“You haven’t given me the math,” Wallace told Ryan.

“I don’t have the—it would take me too long to go through all of the math,” Ryan replied.

The next chance for Ryan to strut his stuff was in a debate with the Republican Party’s favorite punching bag, Joe Biden. After a debate victory by Mitt Romney catapulted the ticket back into contention, Ryan would have a chance to keep the good times rolling against the man his supporters had painted as a gaffe-prone blowhard.

Far from putting on a clinic of how to solve the nation’s problems, Ryan talking-pointed his way through the portions on foreign policy and allowed Biden to dominate discussions of domestic policy, particularly on entitlements. In the end, Ryan—the master technician who was supposed to "roll over them with knowledge"—withered on cross-exmination. (Afterward, his supporters gamely spun that he had “held his own,” but even that was a pretty obvious stretch.)

Perhaps most predictably, Ryan’s place on the ticket enabled Democrats to hammer Romney on the draconian budget plan that he had been trying to distance himself from. It’s obviously no fault of Ryan’s that Romney was caught on tape in September calling nearly half the nation moochers who see themselves as victims. But Ryan’s selection as Romney’s running mate attached a specific set of policies--effective cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid--to the comments, giving them real-world implications.

By the time Ryan was caught pretending to clean dishes for a photo-op at a soup kitchen in mid-October, it was already abundantly clear that he was unable or unwilling to give America the substantive policy debate it had been promised.

While the predicted payoffs of the Ryan choice never really materialized, several tactical liabilities for Romney did.

They were predictable enough. Romney's continuing emphasis on Obama's lack of business and "real economy" experience become unsustainable after the selection of Ryan, a career government employee. And while Democrats had already succeeded in attacking Romney's character, it was the addition of Ryan to the ticket that allowed them to highlight specific policy threats with which to frighten voters.

With Ryan, Obama's team was able to tie the once-liberal Romney to the unpopular Ryan budget plan, which then forced Team Romney into an uncomfortable strategy of embrace-and-differentiate.

And at a time when Obama was having trouble replicating anything like the enthusiasm among his supporters that he had generated four years ago, Ryan gave progressives something to rally against. Obama enters Election Day with his voters more enthusiastic than Romney's, by nine points, and more or less equalling the levels of four years ago.

If Romney loses big, his running-mate selection won't be the reason for it. Neither will Hurricane Sandy or Chris Christie or Nate Silver or the Washington Post's much-discussed placement of the haircut story.

None of that is as significant as the fact that Romney has had to go out and sell a program that too many voters—particularly ones who are not white and male—find repellant.

But Paul Ryan most surely hasn't helped.

Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.