When he chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney won the trust of many conservatives, who thought Ryan would push the moderate Romney to the right. But that calculation overlooked the deference a running mate traditionally pays to a presidential candidate.
On Medicare and abortion, Ryan has already had to slide to the left in order to be a Romney's good lieutenant. These moves have some Republicans on Capitol Hill worried that the intellectual leader of conservatives may have to cut and trim his convictions in the presidential campaign.
Ryan's defining issue has been fixing Medicare, but joining Team Romney has forced him to do an about-face on the issue.
Medicare is already spending more than it is taking in. As baby boomers retire, Medicare rolls are growing faster than the economy is growing. As health costs rise, the per capita cost of Medicare will also rise faster than gross domestic product. Medicare is fast going bankrupt, and Ryan in 2010 laid out a plan to save it.
During the 2010 election, Ryan stood out in his party because while he was advocating reforms to slow Medicare's growth, most Republicans were attacking Democrats over Medicare cuts included in Obamacare -- cuts Ryan's plan would preserve. In July 2010, Ryan was asked at the Brookings Institution why the rest of his party sounded so different than he on Medicare. "They're talking to their pollsters." Ryan answered, "and their pollsters are saying, 'Stay away from this, we're going to win an election.' "
But now Ryan inveighs against Medicare cuts. You see, Romney has promised to repeal all of Obamacare, and he has explicitly pledged to undo the bill's Medicare cuts. Ryan joined this chorus in his nominating speech.
"Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama," Ryan warned from the podium in Tampa. "An obligation we have to our parents and grandparents is being sacrificed. ... The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we're going to stop it."
Ryan has also had to back down from his consistent pro-life stance. After Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin sloppily brought rape and abortion into the political fray, the Romney-Ryan campaign issued a statement declaring that "a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape."
But Ryan, an observant Catholic dedicated to protecting all unborn life, has always opposed all abortion, even in the cases of rape. But to avoid the appearance of a split in the ticket, Ryan had to muffle his personal beliefs.
"Should abortions be available to women who are raped?" Pittsburgh television reporter Jon Delano asked Ryan in late August.
Ryan gave a nonanswer: "Well, look, I'm proud of my pro-life record. And I stand by my pro-life record in Congress. It's something I'm proud of. But Mitt Romney is the top of the ticket, and Mitt Romney will be president, and he will set the policy of the Romney administration."
But Ryan wasn't asked what the Romney administration's policy would be. He was asked, directly, whether abortion should be allowed in the case of rape. The Catholic Church has made it clear that Catholic politicians have an obligation to speak the truth on moral matters. Instead of doing so here, Ryan dodged the moral question, gave a limp political answer and surely left some viewers confused about the Catholic Church's pro-life views.
Hardly the bold voice expressing the difficult truths championed by conservatives.
Ryan has not noticeably moved Romney to the right on the campaign trail. Romney, though, has dragged Ryan away from his conservative positions and his intellectual clarity.
What does this portend for a potential Romney-Ryan White House? When Romney tapped Ryan in August, one conservative activist told me he thought that if Republicans win in November, Ryan might be congressional conservatives' lobbyist in the White House.
Ryan's behavior over the past month, however, suggests he would instead be Romney's tool for dragging conservatives over to Romney's positions.
"That's exactly what will happen," one former Ryan staffer told me this week.
A month ago, if you asked who was the conservative movement's intellectual leader in Washington, the obvious answer was Paul Ryan. Is that still true today? Would it be true during or after a Romney-Ryan White House?
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.