By FRED BARNES
After naming Paul Ryan as his running mate this month, Mitt Romney gave better speeches, especially when Rep. Ryan was at his side. Gov. Romney’s poll numbers ticked up in Ohio and Virginia, both swing states. His online fundraising shot up like a geyser (68% of it coming from new donors). The Romney Facebook page added 510,000 friends in five days.
Those are the most tangible signs of the Ryan Effect on the presidential campaign. Yet they are not the most important. Once Mr. Ryan entered the race, everything changed: the issues, the substance of the candidates’ speeches, perceptions of Mr. Romney and President Obama, the role of a running mate.
Never before has a vice presidential candidate become a central figure in a presidential race. There was no Gore Effect in 1992 or Cheney Effect in 2000. And never have a running mate’s ideas become leading issues overnight, likely to dominate the campaign through election day.
The Ryan Effect turned the race upside down. The thrust of Mr. Obama’s bid for re-election had been maligning Mr. Romney and pandering to Democratic interest groups. Mr. Romney was concentrating on attacking Mr. Obama for the subpar economic recovery and weak job growth.
The economy remains a central issue, as do Mr. Obama’s overall record and Mr. Romney’s past one. But now the looming fiscal crisis, Medicare, and the size and role of government are front and center of the campaign. The presidential contest has been elevated into a clash of big ideas and fundamental differences. Neither presidential candidate, but especially Mr. Obama, could have imagined this. Credit Mr. Ryan.
This shift has been damaging to the president and helpful to Mr. Romney. The slogan of Mr. Obama’s campaign is “Forward,” but he’s become the status-quo candidate. Mr. Romney, having adopted slightly revised versions of Mr. Ryan’s bold plans for reducing spending and reforming Medicare, is now the candidate of change. This might have happened to some extent without Mr. Ryan in the race, but it certainly wasn’t inevitable.
With his ambitious agenda for tackling debt and spurring growth, Mr. Ryan makes Mr. Obama seem smaller. With no plan of his own, Mr. Obama has made a fetish of ignoring the fiscal emergency. That stance no longer looks tenable.
By the same token, the fact that Mr. Ryan’s plan is politically risky makes the normally cautious Mr. Romney seem larger for having picked him. He’s not like the hapless 1948 Republican presidential contender Tom Dewey, without the mustache. He recognized that his criticisms of Mr. Obama had failed to create a sense of urgency about the nation’s faltering economy. Mr. Ryan is adept at describing, with facts and figures, the peril America faces and the urgency of facing up to it.
For the president, the unavoidable presence of Mr. Ryan is bound to be unsettling. “Ryan psychs Obama out,” Harvard’s Niall Ferguson writes in this week’s Newsweek. It would seem so. In three face-to-face encounters, Mr. Obama has conspicuously shied away from engaging with Mr. Ryan.
According to the White House, the president has reached out to Mr. Ryan in the past but gotten nowhere. This isn’t true. Mr. Obama spoke to Mr. Ryan in January 2010 at a Republican retreat, said he’d read the “Roadmap” that presaged Mr. Ryan’s budget, and noted that he agreed with “some ideas in there” and disagreed with others. “We should have a healthy debate,” the president added.
Instead he unleashed an assault. Mr. Obama’s allies, including budget director Peter Orzsag and Democrats in Congress, quickly pounced on Mr. Ryan and his proposed policies. Then, at a White House health-care summit a month later, Mr. Ryan delivered a withering critique of the president’s overhaul of the health-care system. Mr. Obama responded briefly, then called on another speaker.
It was at their third meeting in April 2011 that Mr. Obama took on Mr. Ryan, seated directly in front of him. His attack was brutal. He suggested the budget drafted by Mr. Ryan as chairman of the House Budget Committee would jeopardize food safety and care for children with autism or Down syndrome. Mr. Ryan was not asked to reply, much less debate those issues.
Mr. Ferguson believes the reason Mr. Ryan “psychs” the president out is that “unlike Obama, Ryan has a plan—as opposed to a narrative—for this country.” Mr. Obama may be sensitive for another reason as well. He’s been called the smartest president ever. But Mr. Ryan is not only more knowledgeable than Mr. Obama about fiscal and economic issues, he’s more adept at debating them.
Mr. Ryan frustrates his detractors. Like his mentor, the late Jack Kemp, he is upbeat and friendly and eager to seek out converts. He is willing to compromise to bring them on board, too, as he did in welcoming Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon as co-sponsor of his Medicare reform initiative.
In frisking Mr. Ryan, politically speaking, Democrats and the media have been unable to decide where he is most vulnerable. Over the weekend, the New York Times referred to him as a libertarian, while the Washington Post questioned whether he’s even a deficit hawk.
What particularly upsets opponents is Mr. Ryan’s image. “The disarming thing is his sense of mission is greater than his sense of ambition,” says Ryan adviser David Smick, a Washington economic consultant. “This is disconcerting to his critics.”
They would like to do to him what they did to Sarah Palin when she was John McCain’s running mate in 2008. Mrs. Palin’s biography raised questions about her qualifications to be vice president, but after 14 years in Congress Mr. Ryan’s qualifications are sterling. Critics are left with the option of attacking him as an extremist or a phony. But the evidence from his career in Washington indicates that he is neither.
There’s one more fruit of the Ryan Effect, noted by my Weekly Standard colleague William Kristol. The Republican campaign, he writes, has turned into a movement. A “mere electoral effort” has become a cause. Only Mr. Ryan could have produced this phenomenon.
For the moment, Mr. Ryan has upstaged Mr. Romney. That won’t last. The top of the ticket always dominates. But Mr. Ryan has given the Romney campaign what it lacked: the ideas and the energy that provide a clear path to the White House.
Mr. Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a Fox News commentator. This Op-ed appeared on the print edition of the WSJ on 8/21/12