Strassel: A Choice Between Stagnation and Renewal

By Kimberly Strassel, WSJ

His running mate offers Romney the opportunity to explain to Americans that they have a choice between national stagnation and renewal.

Mitt Romney did much more this weekend than announce a running mate. He unveiled a significant change in strategy. The 2012 election is now a choice, not just a referendum.

Conservatives have spent much of this summer reassuring themselves. They’ve pointed out the extraordinary sums President Obama has thrown at crippling Mr. Romney. They’ve noted how ugly and brutal those attacks have been. They’ve comforted themselves that, for all the smears, Mr. Romney is within a few points of the incumbent in national tracking polls.

Yet the same can be said on the other side. The economy is teetering, the deficit exploding, the nation unhappy with his signature legislation. Daily, Mr. Romney beats the White House with these failures. But he has barely moved the polling dial.

Mr. Romney’s choice of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, one of the party’s star reformers, is an attempt to break out of the stalemate, change the dynamic. It was foremost a shrewd acknowledgment on Mr. Romney’s part that his path to the White House is going to take more than pointing out the obvious. He needs to run on bold ideas, as Mr. Ryan has, and convince Americans those ideas are the way to prosperity.

In fairness, the Romney campaign had the elements in place. It’s taken some time, but Mr. Romney today is sporting a fairly bold reform agenda, from his tax cuts to his Medicare reforms, to his vow to end ObamaCare. And the candidate has been dutifully repeating that this election is a choice between two very different futures for the country. Yet his policy and his words were largely lost amid his campaign’s intense focus on the president.

Mr. Ryan provides the crucial shift in emphasis, the opportunity to go on offense. We will now have a focus on, and explanation of, the choice between stagnation and renewal. This is what Mr. Ryan excels at—not just crafting ideas, but explaining them in a positive and serious way. This ability is why the congressman—despite his supposedly extremist reform blueprint and budget (says the left)—has continued to win a district that in 2010 went for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Romney is well aware of those skills. The two men have been carrying on a conversation for some time. Even before he endorsed Mr. Romney in March, Mr. Ryan had been sending Mr. Romney memos on policy and strategy; they called each other, discussed tough issues like Medicare reform.

Indeed, while the congressman will publicly aid the campaign by barnstorming in Ohio or Florida, he’ll be privately aiding it as a voice in the inner circle—relating his own long experience with how to tackle and win the toughest issues. The Ryan pick will reassure the GOP base, but the goal here is to use the reboot to win the crucial argument with independents and Reagan Democrats—as Mr. Ryan has done so well back in his home state of Wisconsin.

The first pitch to those voters came with Mr. Romney’s introduction of Mr. Ryan on Saturday, in which the campaign made clear it intends to use this pick as a way of underlining the intellectual poverty of the Obama campaign. Mr. Romney spoke of Mr. Ryan’s “integrity,” his “seriousness,” his “intellectual leadership,” and his refusal to “demonize his opponents”—traits for which Mr. Ryan is well-known.

The introduction was designed to highlight the Obama campaign’s own relentless smear attacks, and its focus on the trivial. This is the first sign of Mr. Ryan’s influence, since the strategy is clearly modeled on the congressman’s own history of winning on ideas against opponents who resort to cheap attack.

Democrats will attack anyway. To their disappointment, Mr. Ryan is a well-vetted, 14-year congressman, and a bit of a Boy Scout. There will be no fruitful dumpster-diving, a la Sarah Palin. Instead they are bragging about a 290-page Ryan opposition research paper from the left-wing super PAC American Bridge that focuses on the congressman’s plan to reform Medicare to offer a “premium support” option—a proposal he crafted with Oregon’s Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. That plan would for the first time give seniors who want it the choice of government-funded private insurance options. The attacks will include the usual hysteria that Messrs. Romney and Ryan want to euthanize senior citizens.

Mr. Obama has taken to claiming that Mr. Romney wants to raise taxes on the middle-class so that he can give that money to the 1%. Expect the president and his party to now claim that the Romney-Ryan ticket doesn’t just want to throw granny off the cliff; they want to dispense her Medicare dollars to their fat-cat friends.

Mr. Romney’s only possible response is to go nuclear. His campaign has been timid in its response to the Obama attacks on Bain and Mr. Romney’s wealth. But if the Romney campaign leaves hanging the Obama argument that it is ending Medicare or redistributing tax dollars to the wealthy or denying Americans health care, it will lose.

If Mr. Romney wants to know the perils of adopting Mr. Ryan in name but not in spirit, he need only look at a handful of special House elections over the past years. Those contests featured GOP candidates happy to burnish their conservative credentials by initially supporting Mr. Ryan’s budget reforms. Yet when the Democratic attacks rolled in, they ducked the debate. Voters were left with little choice but to believe the left-wing spin, and the Republicans lost.

There’s another reason the candidate needs to forcefully defend his running mate. Mr. Romney’s pick is considered bold in part because Mr. Ryan’s reforms have in many ways outpaced his own. Democrats, aided by a willing press, are going to be looking for any daylight between the running mates and attempt to spin those perceived cracks into a story line about a fractious, divided ticket. That’s the sort of messy sideshow that can swamp a campaign.

The Ryan pick is the boldest move Mr. Romney has made as a presidential candidate—in this campaign, or his last. If he wants to win the White House, it needs to be just the beginning.

This op-ed appeared on the WSJ on 8/12/12 Ms. Strassel writes the Journal’s Potomac Watch column.

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