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Romney-Ryan constitutes, very possibly, the best-looking ticket in American political history. Mitt Romney is so textbook handsome that he resembles a toy action-figure president. Paul Ryan's youthful, chiseled face and piercing blue eyes are already making hearts flutter around the political world. And no doubt Romney's bold choice for veep - which has made most people forget, for the moment, Bain Capital and his undisclosed tax returns-- will give the Republican presumptive nominee some pop in the polls. For the moment.
But once the excitement surrounding Ryan subsides, the long, ideological slog of this presidential race will resume, and with greater force than before. The stakes will be, once again, about the stark conceptual choice that American voters now face. Romney's selection of Ryan must be seen as part of a continuum of hard-line positions that the GOP candidate, under constant pressure from an often hostile Right, has laid out on everything from immigration to health care to foreign policy.
And with his veep choice Romney is sending a message to the American electorate, more forthrightly than ever, that he won't be moving to the middle after all. He seems to be affirming that he is just about as ideologically conservative and as captured by the GOP base as Obama has been painting him.
Judging from the Obama campaign's line of attack since his speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors last April, this is just what the president wanted: an election that turns, to a very great extent, on the radical nature of Paul Ryan's budget--not so much on the numbers it lays out but on the vision it represents. The plan embodies a fiercely pared-down, pre-New Deal (or at least pre-Eisenhower) concept of government that the Congressional Budget Office (which analyzed the plan at Ryan's request) concluded would effectively eliminate, by 2050, funding for education, highways, veterans' programs, foreign aid, medical and scientific research, national parks, food and water safety, and most programs for low-income families and individuals other than Medicaid, as well as partially privatize Medicare. Ryan's tax proposal would also clearly deepen the already wide gulf in income.
Thus, this is an election that also turns on the still-lingering question: who's really in charge in the GOP? Is it Romney or the Orthodoxicrats of the tea party/Grover Norquist crowd? Bob Schieffer sought to tackle this question on Sunday in his "60 Minutes" interview of the dynamic duo. "Some people are saying you are making it [the election] a referendum on Paul Ryan's budget plan," Schieffer asked Romney. Romney responded that "I have my budget plan, as you know, that I've put out. And that's the budget plan that we're going to run on."
But in fact there is no full-blown Romney budget plan, not anything that has the operational detail of the Ryan plan. And until there is, voters will no doubt be justified in assuming that Romney still endorses Ryan's plan as he did last spring, when he called it "marvelous" -- which, as Obama himself sardonically noted in his April speech, "is a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing a budget."
Well before the veep choice was announced on Sunday, Obama had been linking Romney directly to Ryan in a strategy that appeared to emulate Bill Clinton's successful 1996 takedown of Bob Dole, as I wrote in April. Just as Clinton successfully tied the center-right Kansas senator to the then-far-right Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House, and warned voters that "Dole-Gingrich" would cost them large parts of their Social Security and Medicare," Obama jumped on Romney's seeming endorsement of Ryan's budget last spring.
Recall the president's April speech: "Instead of moderating their views even slightly, the Republicans running Congress right now have doubled down, and proposed a budget so far to the right it makes the Contract With America look like the New Deal," Obama said to laughter. "In fact, that renowned liberal, Newt Gingrich, first called the original version of the budget 'radical' and said it would contribute to 'right-wing social engineering.' "
For Clinton, the charges in '96 stuck not least because Dole decided to run with a zealous supply-sider, former Rep. Jack Kemp.
Romney is as welded now to Ryan as Dole was to Kemp. Still, he does have one big factor in his favor that Dole didn't: an economic crisis and record-high unemployment, all of which may give him and his vision of government the sort of validation that Dole lacked in a generally healthy economy.
Romney's problem is that he has persistently failed to get himself over the 50 percent mark in national polls that he needs to win. He'll have to capture at least some of the middle to do that, including the broad mass of white, middle-class voters who depend on Medicare and other government programs. It's not clear that Paul Ryan, no matter how handsome and winning he may be as a personality, is the pick who's going to do that for him.