Paul Ryan is doing very well indeed on the stump so far in the early days of his vice-presidential candidacy. He can and should do even better, and the Romney-Ryan ticket also should better frame its overall message.
First, just to be clear: Asking Ryan to do better takes some gall, because he’s the best communicator on really complex issues that Republicans have had on a national ticket since Ronald Reagan left the scene. His demeanor is just about perfect; he’s likable, believable, knowledgeable, understandable, and persuasive; and his one-on-one political skills are first-rate.
But with a few tweaks, Ryan can move into the realm of the inspirational. He’s not quite there yet.
Ryan is doing well at criticizing Barack Obama in just the right tones. He is doing well at making the case for saving Medicare. He is doing well at making the case that he and Mitt Romney are serious about fighting a crushing debt load and focusing on job creation. Yet, quite curiously for somebody who wrote speeches for Jack Kemp, the small things missing from his message so far are exactly the Kempian messaging touches that need to accompany his already Kempian can-do attitude.
No conservative was better than Kemp at spreading the message that it is conservatives whose policies are compassionate. The message of compassion, framed rightly, is absolutely crucial for two groups of swing voters: first, the lower-income range of blue-collar workers; and second, suburban professional moms and moderate, unmarried single women who together, according to some detailed polling analyses, create the largest single bloc of persuadable voters — negative about Obama, but previously unenthused about Romney. Reading between the lines on the latter group, it seems they are non-ideological and thus against Obama not because of any aversion to what he believes, but because he hasn’t produced good results and hasn’t governed or campaigned like a unifying figure. They are, however, very concerned that policy be compassionate, in whatever way compassion can best be achieved.
What Kemp did so well was to draw the link, explicitly, between compassion and opportunity. He used the language of compassion (and Ryan should explicitly use the word “compassion”) in a way that virtually equated compassion with “opportunity society”-style policies. There is a real compassion in taking the heavy boot of government off of entrepreneurs and small businessmen. Consumer Product Safety regulations, for instance, that hurt second-hand stores and even music students, along with taxes on medical devices like pacemakers and prosthetic limbs, are exactly the sort of burdens that would be removed by compassion involved in limiting government.
Ryan is doing a good job talking about problem-solving — but it sounds like he is more interested in solving the problems of government accountants than in offering a sense of why individual citizens’ own lives will be better in a Romney-Ryan opportunity society. (Note: The “opportunity society” phrase itself is old enough by now to sound a little hackneyed, so he probably needs a new label; I use it here merely for convenience of expression.) His demeanor is, to his credit, marked with a can-do ebullience; but his words are not the words of Kempian uplift.
Consider, for instance, this snippet from Kemp’s 1996 speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination (Ryan himself may have written it, for all I know): “Our appeal of boundless opportunity crosses every barrier of geography, race and belief. We may not get every vote, but we will speak to every heart. In word and action, we will represent our entire American family.” Boundless opportunity. Speak to every heart, and represent the entire American family. This is the language of inclusion, of caring, and of optimism — without ever equating compassion with what government can give to somebody.
Later in the speech came this:
Democratic capitalism is not just the hope of wealth, but the hope of justice. When we look into the face of poverty, we see pain, despair and need. But, above all, in every face, we must see the image of God. The Creator of All has planted the seed of creativity in us all, the desire within every child of God to work and build and improve our lot in life, and that of our families and those we love.
And in our work, in the act of creating that is part of all labor, we discover that part within ourselves that is divine. I believe the ultimate imperative for growth and opportunity is to advance human dignity.
Dr. Martin Luther King believed that we must see a sleeping hero in every soul. America must establish policies that summon those heroes and call forth the boundless potential of the human spirit.
So far, this is a spirit of outreach, of human connection, that Ryan has not articulated. But everything we see of Ryan indicates that it is a spirit fully consonant with everything he believes and with how he lives. And it is a spirit that a man of his superb political talents can communicate, not least because he can do so in all sincerity, with the perfect comfort of someone doing nothing other than being himself.
As for the ticket as a whole, it has yet to lay out a compelling vision — a “picture, about how it’s gonna be,” to borrow a line from a treacly pop song — that citizens can see, and aspire to, in their own minds’ eyes. The vision doesn’t need to be a gauzy, Reaganesque “shining city on a hill.” The secret to Reagan’s vision wasn’t that he provided an image, but that he joined an image with substance. His subtext was that in a time of malaise, he wanted to let Americans be Americans again, rather than the “wee, sleekin, cowrin, tim’rous, beasties” (with apologies to Robert Burns) into which Jimmy Carter and the Soviets threatened to turn us.
The vision does, however, need to be almost palpable, and it needs to match the Romney-Ryan ticket’s strengths. Romney and Ryan clearly are problem solvers, guys who are competent and knowledgeable, and guys who believe that the American character is that of a people who still believe they can achieve their goals if only others, or government, wouldn’t get in their way. Fortunately, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute already has identified and outlined exactly the sort of message that melds the Romney-Ryan strengths with the Kempian opportunity society in whose soil Ryan’s roots are so deeply embedded. The key, says Brooks, is “earned success.” The pursuit of happiness is achieved is rewarded, Brooks said, not with manna from heaven, but through the knowledge that one has accomplished success and has the chance to accomplish more.
As Reagan used straightforward language to connect the dots between his policy prescriptions and his vision of bright and noble city, so too should the Republican ticket explain that giving future senior citizens a choice, just as they have a choice for prescription drug programs, will give them a better system while saving Medicare for the future. Getting government out of the game of subsidizing piggy banks such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as Ryan bravely tried to do more than a decade ago and still would do today, would leave both taxpayers and homeowners less at the mercy of profiteers and bad lending practices. Promoting competitive best practices in the private sector, as Romney did with Staples, creates far more jobs than following the red-tape-strewn dictates of government planners.
The Obama administration has acted as a wet blanket on private enterprise; a Romney administration should be portrayed as one that won’t get in the way of earned success, but that will act with a firm belief, as Kemp said, that there is a “sleeping hero in every soul.”
Done right, this is the sort of campaign that, against a bad economy and a failed administration, can turn a tight-as-Lycra election into something that approaches a Republican romp.
The Romney-Ryan ticket has made a very good start. Here’s betting that it has the right stuff to turn “very good” into “superlative,” and to deliver on abundant promise.