From the start, Mitt Romney's search for a running mate was a kind of ghost story, a process haunted by the specter of a certain former governor of Alaska. After their searing experience with Sarah Palin four years ago, Republicans vowed their next vice-presidential nominee would be someone serious and substantive.
In naming Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate on Aug. 11, Romney chose someone as deep as Palin was shallow, a studious wonk known for his mastery of that most substantive of all issues: the federal budget. Running mates are often chosen for their credentials or because of their home state or their looks and personality. Ryan scores points in all those categories. But in this case, says his friend and colleague House Republican whip Kevin McCarthy, one factor trumped all the others: "This is the first guy to get chosen based on policy."
But in Washington, fights over budget policy almost always cut both ways. Romney now approaches the campaign's homestretch alongside a cheerful and articulate young man whose name has become synonymous with huge budget cuts and changes to beloved entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
Many Republicans think Romney can win on grand themes of fiscal discipline and conservative economic values and laud Ryan as that rare Washington politician who has done the work to earn credibility on both fronts. But they worry that the addition of a charismatic crusader could make the ticket look less like a fix-it team and more like an ideological hit squad. "It was a risk," says Dan Schnur, an aide to John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign who now teaches at the University of Southern California. "If this ends up making the election about entitlements, that's a much steeper hill for Romney to climb."
The Ryan rollout was as glossy and heady as an Apple product release. Conservatives cheered in news columns; crowds swelled and yelled at rallies. Romney was visibly jazzed. At an event with Ryan in Wisconsin, the two men were overcome with emotion and teared up onstage. Even some Democrats cheered the notion that this might now be a campaign about substance and ideas--specifically, and remarkably, Ryan's ideas.
Ryan has clearly expressed those ideas in the form of several sweeping budget proposals, including ones he wrote in each of the past two years as House Budget Committee chairman. Budgets are at heart ideological documents, and Ryan's combine supply-side economics with an assault on the New Deal welfare state. His latest budget would slash federal spending by $5.3 trillion over 10 years while outlining a major overhaul of Medicare. Ryan leaves many specifics vague--a check on his reputation for political bravery--but his plan could require bone-deep cuts to even essential programs, from air-traffic control to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI and much in between. Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled, would shrivel by $800 billion over 10 years. And taxes on the wealthy and corporations would be kept low, though Ryan would close unspecified loopholes. Defense would be largely spared. (Ryan has supported cuts to Social Security in the past, but his latest budget doesn't include them.)