NORFOLK, Va. – Dating back to his first bid for the presidency in 2008, conservatives such as myself have doubted whether Mitt Romney, the one-time moderate governor of Massachusetts, would run as a conservative if he ever won the Republican nomination let alone govern as one if elected. A few hours from now, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is expected to name Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as his vice presidential running-mate at the USS Wisconsin here. It is the first step in the process of proving his conservative doubters wrong.
By picking Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman best known for his bold plan to reform America’s broken entitlement system, Romney has signaled several things. One, despite his reputation for being a calculating politician who plays it safe, he is willing to take risks. Two, Romney may be more serious than skeptics thought about confronting the nation’s crushing debt burden, even if it requires sweeping changes. Three, even though Romney has sewn up the Republican nomination, he isn’t taking conservatives for granted – he listened to conservatives urging him to choose Ryan over the liberals and moderates warning him that it would be suicidal.
For decades, Republicans were content to talk a big game about shrinking government and reining in the welfare state only to cower once elected. But as a Congressman, Ryan has worked tirelessly to design and advocate solutions to the nation’s most vexing domestic problems. To be sure, Ryan himself has deviated from conservatives on important occasions. He voted for the Wall Street bailout and for President Bush’s Medicare prescription drug plan, for instance, as he quietly walked a fine line between being a bold reformer and a loyal soldier. As the debt issue rose in the public consciousness over the past several years, Ryan was the only politician in town that had an actual plan to do something about it. In 2010, when I wrote a long feature about Ryan and his “Roadmap” to reform entitlements, health care and the tax code, few Republicans would go on record endorsing it. Now, just over two years later, he’s being embraced by Mitt Romney, notorious for being one of the most cautious politicians in America. That is the power of ideas.
There will be plenty of time to discuss the politics of this pick. Liberals will no doubt portray Ryan as a radical who wants to destroy Medicare. But their attack strategy may not be as easy to pull off as they think, because when in the spotlight Ryan comes across as reasonable and articulate. There’s a reason why he’s been able to win handily in a swing Congressional district that went for Clinton, Dukakis, Gore and Obama.
Weeks before the 2010 election that gave Republicans control of the House, Ryan told me, “2010 is a proxy fight, or a shadow boxing match, to the real fight in 2012. 2012 is the fight for the soul of America. What kind of country do we want to be in the 21st century? Do we want to be a mediocre nation where we manage our decline like Western Europe, and we become a cradle to grave welfare society, or do we want to get the American idea back?”
Now Ryan will get to play a leading role in that fight.
This week, many people, including myself, were questioning whether Romney’s campaign actually stood for anything. By nominating Ryan, the former Massachusetts governor is taking a stand. There will be plenty of days going forward on which Romney will frustrate, even infuriate, conservatives. But this is a day on which Romney deserves to be praised. The Ryan pick may not have eliminated conservatives’ doubts about Romney, but it has eased them. He has given conservatives something to fight for.