Why Paul Ryan is the new Sarah Palin

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 21, 2012


After the traumatic experience with the choice of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008, Mitt Romney wanted to appoint a running mate that would not embarrass his campaign as Palin embarrassed John McCain. Though Paul Ryan is a much more experienced, able and better prepared politician than Palin, their nominations share one negative externality for their respective running mates.  Ryan has become the central figure in the Republican camp just as Palin eclipsed McCain.


Vice presidents occupy one of the best known and least influential positions in American politics. They are just one heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world. Yet, they only sit on the bench when the president is alive. Vice presidential candidates are usually chosen to send a signal to the electorate. The presidential candidate wants to show that he/she is prepared to strengthen his weak points and bring needed experience or youth to the campaign.  They also court geographic and strategic voting blocs when choosing a running mate. Yet, because gains are marginal, the fact that a bad VP choice can do so much harm induces candidates to pick a running mate seeking to minimize costs rather than optimize benefits.


In 2008, John McCain took too long in choosing a running mate. He ended up choosing a VP candidate without going through the proper vetting process.  Initially, a young, telegenic and energetic Palin was received as a positive compliment for the 72-year old presidential candidate. But her inexperience and unpreparedness ended up embarrassing the campaign and raising questions about McCain’s own judgment.  Sarah Palin became the center of attention in the Republican race. Her inexperience in national affairs, unfamiliarity with international affairs, lack of knowledge on policy issues and excessive intellectual simplicity ended up hurting her own reputation and became a liability to McCain’s campaign.


The choice of Paul Ryan as VP candidate will not have the same negative effects on Romney’s campaign. Ryan is better prepared, certainly more intelligent and more politically savvy than Palin. He is a well-known and respected leader in the Republican Party. He is intelligent, well-read and very articulate to defend his points and advance his agenda. He will not embarrass the party in the way Palin did.


However, he and Palin do share one thing in common.  They both attract more attention than their running mates.  Palin’s attention was mostly negative.  Ryan’s attention is polarizing and controversial. As a leading conservative Republican in the House—and a darling of the Tea Party movement—Ryan inevitably polarizes the race. Knowing that Obama no longer generates the enthusiasm that brought liberals to contribute and energetically campaign on his behalf in 2008, Democrats are using Ryan’s nomination to motivate their electoral base. The expectations that the presidential election would be a contest to attract moderate voters have all but dissipated as Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan has further separated the choices from moderate voters.


Ryan is also controversial. His budget plan will also become a central campaign issue.  His bold proposals for tax cuts and huge spending cuts as a way to balance the budget will be focal points for the apparent democratic strategy of “fear you can believe in”, the new unofficial campaign slogan of the Obama administration. If hope can no longer be the driving force behind the campaign, the fear of what a Republican administration might do if Obama is not re-elected might very well give the first African American president a second term. 


Because Romney has a much less controversial personality and his own campaign has run a campaign full of flip-flopping on key issues, Democrats will choose to run against Ryan. At the same time, the Obama camp will insist that Romney’s flip-flopping signals lack of principles and that he will simply be a puppet in the hands of Ryan and the militantly conservative Republicans who are out-of-touch with real Americans.


The 42-year old Ryan is more energetic than the 65-year old Romney.  Ryan also seems more convinced of his own beliefs than Romney. While Romney is a born-again conservative and opposes policies that he used to embrace—and successfully implemented when governor of liberal Massachusetts—Ryan has a history of consistent conservative and anti-government positions. It does not matter that Ryan has little experience outside Washington and that he has never won a state-wide office.  The fact that Romney has won among moderate voters has in fact become a liability within the Republican Party. For conservatives, Ryan is more credible than Romney.


Ryan inspires Republicans in a way that Romney will never do. That is probably why Romney chose him as running mate.  However, Ryan shines so much that he eclipses Romney. He is now the center of attention in the Republican ticket. In that, he reproduces one of the biggest headaches Palin caused to McCain.  When the vice presidential candidate attracts more attention than the presidential candidate, there are good reasons to be worried and there are good explanations for the opponents to smile.