Paul Ryan

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan to be his running mate is bold and gutsy. It has the potential to elevate and enliven this fall’s campaign, to refocus the debate on ideas instead of name-calling and to put federal spending and the size of government squarely in the limelight.

Whether any of that will help Romney’s chances of getting elected, however, is another question. Ryan has been a rising star in the GOP and a darling of the party’s conservative base, but it is far from certain that his ideas will resonate with the general public, or even with all Republicans.

The 42-year-old Ryan is a seven-term Republican congressman from Wisconsin best known for his proposed federal budget, which has effectively been adopted as the official Republican plan. First elected at age 28, Ryan is by all accounts smart, hardworking and personable.

He is also a staunch conservative on social issues. For the year 2010 (the last reported) the Nation Journal’s Almanac of American Politics gives him a liberal rating on social and foreign policy issues of precisely zero.

Ryan is opposed to same-sex marriage, fought allowing gay adoption in the District of Columbia, opposed repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and would ban abortion with no exceptions. He has also said states should be able to jail women who have abortions.

Some on the right have qualms as well. Newt Gingrich once called Ryan’s budget “right-wing social engineering.” A group called the National Security Network has decried the choice of Ryan as having “dangerous implications” for national security in part because his “budget doesn’t even say the word veteran.” Another called the American Values Network released a 60-second television spot criticizing Ryan’s avowed admiration for the teachings of what it calls the “atheist and anti-Christian philosopher” Ayn Rand.

There are also Republican concerns that Ryan’s complete lack of executive or business experience undercuts Romney’s core argument for his own election.

But what Romney’s choice of Ryan clearly reflects is a fundamental shift in this campaign. Romney has been running on the assumption that 2012 would be all about Obama, that the economy would have voters flocking to any alternative. In this view, all Romney need do is offer himself as the not-Obama and smile. The details could be worked out later.

But as polls have shown, it was not working. Obama is not as hated as the GOP hoped, the Bush aftertaste is worse, and the economy is slowly improving.

Picking Ryan, and thereby embracing his budgetary thinking, changes the race from a referendum on Obama’s handling of the last four years into a choice between competing ideas about how to go forward. That makes for a better debate and a more meaningful election. It also gets into the realm of specific ideas. As a Republican strategist told John Dickerson of Slate, “We’ve switched the campaign from being about jobs and Obama’s bad record to one about Paul Ryan’s Medicare plans.”

And that could get interesting. Ryan would transform Medicare into a voucher program, as well as privatize Social Security. Plus, for all the talk of fiscal responsibility, Ryan’s budget is really about cutting government not the deficit.

With Ryan, Romney is offering voters a clear choice, which should make for a good debate and a lively campaign. But in similar fashion another Republican once presented himself as “A choice, not an echo.” In 1964, Barry Goldwater won six states and 38 percent of the popular vote. In a way, that was how we got Medicare to begin with.

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