Five observations on the selection of Paul Ryan

First, the selection of Paul Ryan is very unlikely to change the outcome of the election. Only once in my lifetime has the VP selection probably changed the outcome (the selection of Lyndon Johnson in 1960). This may be the only such case in American history. Even taking into account that this election is likely to be closer than average, I doubt there is more than a 5 percent chance that having Ryan on the ticket instead of a generic nominee will alter the outcome. Moreover, it is possible that the addition of Ryan will throw the election to Mitt Romney. Thus, the odds that Ryan’s selection will cost Romney the election are even longer than the odds that it will change the outcome.

Second, it follows that those who consider Ryan clearly superior as a potential VP/President to the others on the short list – Rubio, Portman, Pawlenty, and Jindal – have reason to be happy about his selection.

Third, Ryan is, nonetheless, a sub-optimal nominee in terms of boosting Romney’s prospects for defeating President Obama. Stated differently, he is more likely to hurt Romney than to help him in the election.

Why? Because Romney’s best bet is to keep the election focused on the state of the economy under Obama’s stewardship. Romney probably can’t win by talking about only this. However, the Democrats stand on more fertile ground when the focus is on the specifics of a controversial Republican budget proposal than when it is on the performance of the economy. Ryan is the high-profile author of the controversial Republican budget proposal. Therefore, his addition to the ticket means more intense focus on that proposal.

In this regard, I find it telling that Ryan’s name already appears in some of Obama’s campaign ads. Without Ryan on the ticket, voters might have found these references confusing or largely beside the point. Now, they will have greater resonance.

It’s possible, of course, that Team Obama has miscalculated, and is playing right into Romney’s hands by focusing on Ryan and his budget plan. But when it comes to matters of political calculation, I’ll put my money on the guy who, against the odds, took down Hillary Clinton, pushed Obamacare through Congress even after Scott Brown’s victory, and, in the face of a bad economy, leads Romney is most polls.

Fourth, I don’t agree that, because Romney was going to be defending the Ryan budget anyway, no disadvantage attaches to having Ryan on the ticket. As noted above, adding Ryan will place more focus on his budget.

Ronald Reagan’s hard-line conservatism was always going to be a major talking point for Jimmy Carter in 1980. But Reagan didn’t double down on it by selecting a “movement conservative” to run with him. Chappaquiddick would have been an issue for Ted Kennedy had he been nominated for president. But Kennedy still would have been best served by choosing a squeaky clean running mate.

At times, doubling down can be a good move. For example, Bill Clinton was shrewd to reinforce his youthful, southern faux moderation by picking Al Gore. But doubling down on an opponent’s key talking point seems counterproductive.

Fifth, much can be said for Winston Churchill’s position that it is “better go down telling the truth and acting in accordance with the verities of our position than gain a span of shabbily-bought office by easy and fickle froth and chatter.” But that represents a false choice in this context. Selecting Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, or Rob Portman, for example, would not have entailed a Romney campaign marred by “easy and fickle froth and chatter.”

Obama’s campaign already is so marred. Ryan’s selection will produce some very easy additional froth and chatter. Romney and Ryan will hope to counter it through an adult conversation. But they had better be prepared to win a battle of 30 second sound bites.

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