With Mitt Romney’s announcement this morning that he had tapped Ryan, the very same flicker is enlivening the eyes of everyone residing at the Obama for America HQ in Chicago and in the warrens of the White House, coupled with grins wide enough to span the distance between the two. But as giddy as Democrats are about the pick, so are Republicans and in particular conservative stalwarts. The underlying cause of the joy on both sides is the same, and it also happens to be the reason why the country should love the selection too: It raises the stakes and starkly clarifies the choice that voters will face in November — in one fell and dramatic swoop transforming a campaign that was teetering on the edge of being about nothing (of substance, that is) into a contest about Very Big Things indeed.
That the right is thrilled comes as no surprise, of course, given the despondency sinking in among hard-core conservatives (and, really, most Republicans) over the state of the Romney campaign during this long hot summer. Themeless, timid, error-prone, and on the defensive over Bain, taxes, and the dreadful foreign trip, the Romney campaign has seen their guy’s position in the race steadily erode, with three new polls showing him behind by seven to nine points and Obama at or near 50 percent (CNN 52-45 percent, Fox 49-40 percent, Reuters/Ipsos 49-42 percent). While the GOP political class has loudly and justifiably lamented Team Romney’s poor performance on defense against Team O’s attacks, conservatives have been more troubled by its abject failures of offense: its inability or unwillingness to lay out a bold and clear agenda to contrast with that of the president.
In choosing Ryan, Romney, in effect, both acknowledged and granted the validity of that latter set of criticisms. As my colleague Jonathan Chait and others have written, Ryan has become the de facto ideological and intellectual leader of the contemporary GOP. His agenda of turning Medicare into a voucher program, bloc-granting and taking the meat axe to Medicaid, drastically cutting spending on virtually every other government program (except defense, natch), and, yes, privatizing Social Security has been called many things, from courageous and bold (by countless conservatives) to “thinly veiled Social Darwinism” (by Obama) and “right-wing social engineering” (by Newt Gingrich). What you cannot call it is vague or vacuous or mealy-mouthed — all words that have been attached to the man at the top of the ticket.
So this was not a safe or conventional pick — not a pick motivated by winning a state (as Portman would have partly been regarding Ohio or Marco Rubio would have partly been regarding Florida). This was a pick about ideas, about policies, about core convictions. But it was also a pick driven by political weakness.
As you know, we disagree with the last point, since our reading of the polls suggests that Romney has been ahead by a comfortable margin. But we agree with Mr. Heilemann that both sides should be happy about this. Each camp is going for a mandate, and will have one if the November results are clear enough.
Our thesis is that the 2012 election is something like the Alamo or the Custer’s Last Stand of the legacy media. Every made-up gaffe, every Kool-Aid poll are in service of dragging the guy that 90% of them support across the finish line. Their power to shape the national narrative has been on the wane for 25 years now, and we think there’s something of a crack-up going on in the media-cultural establishment. In November, we’ll see how accurate our view is.