Mitt Romney's likely win in tomorrow's Wisconsin primary (he's up by more than seven points in yesterday's RealClearPolitics poll average) won't lock up the Republican nomination for him, but it will be another long step toward it. And the closer the nomination becomes, the more speculation there will be about whom Romney should -- or shouldn't -- choose as his running mate.
Romney is a cautious man. The idea that one of his former rivals for the nomination would be his choice is risible. Their words will be fodder for a long series of Obama campaign ads that will run through Election Day. Romney won't fail to vet his running mate thoroughly, as McCain failed to do four years ago.
He could choose Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, former OMB director, as a team-strengthening economic expert but Portman -- who served under George W. Bush -- would play directly into Obama's meme that voting for Romney would return us to the bad old days. Portman is out.
Many conservatives clamor for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who is clearly chary of the idea. Rubio is, we must hope, on another presidential track. We need him to take the time to get more experience on the national stage and help him groom himself for the presidency. Rubio, from everything we've seen so far, belongs in the top job. Just not yet. And he's smart enough to realize that.
Which leaves an almost endless list of other possibilities. Vice Presidential candidates can't win you an election, but they can help you lose as Fritz Mondale would be the first to tell you. Romney needs someone who can help him win.
Romney has, from the outset, focused his campaign on the economy, which he is wise to do. Poll after poll says that the economy is the top issue for voters. Gallup's most recent poll (March 28) found that over 70 percent of Americans worried more about the economy than anything else followed, in order, by gas prices, federal spending, and the budget deficit. A Rasmussen poll released yesterday found that 49 percent of Americans trusted Republicans on the economy and only 38 percent trusted Democrats.
Which delivers us, inexorably, to the best and most fact-driven running mate choice for Mitt Romney: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. There are strong reasons for this conclusion, each of which justify the choice. When taken together, the case for Ryan appears too compelling to avoid.
The first reason for Ryan to be on Romney's ticket is that the Ryan Budget will be a major issue in the campaign regardless of who Romney's running mate is. Who better to defend it -- clearly and strongly -- and attack Obama's reckless, feckless spending than its author? Ryan, as The Almanac of American Politics says, is "…regarded as an intellectual leader in the GOP for his unrivaled influence on fiscal matters." And he uses that influence courageously, taking on the whole budget mess from taxes to the Medicare entitlement program in a way that is both fiscally responsible and reasonable.
The Ryan Budget cuts the deficit, reforms Medicare, and includes a whole host of tax reductions resulting in a balanced budget by 2040, which is too far in the future to satisfy those of us who want to roll back Obama's spending spree. But it has the advantage of being more likely to be achieved.
After the House passed Ryan's budget, White House flak Jay Carney issued a statement characterizing it as Republican action to "… shower millionaires and billionaires with a massive tax cut paid for by ending Medicare as we know it and making extremely deep cuts to critical programs needed to create jobs and strengthen the middle class." Which is false, and exactly what you'd expect from Obama's White House.
The calumnies are coming thick and fast. Obama said of the Ryan Budget, "I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program," which Ryan's plan doesn't make it. The hyperliberal New York Times called the Ryan Budget "cruel," insisting it would "leave millions of struggling American families desperate for food, shelter and health care." That it would do none of those things is of no matter to the Dems or the Times.
Romney's business credentials are strong, but his economic policy pronouncements -- as good as they are -- are a lackluster list of tax cuts and a bit more. In the day-to-day windsprints through the primaries, Romney hasn't taken the time to explain them. He will be busy doing that during the post-nomination campaign and trying to draw contrasts with Obama. Now that Romney has endorsed Ryan's plan, Ryan can be an enormous help.
The second big reason for Ryan to be the choice is that he's more than up to the task. If you listened to Paul Ryan three or four years ago, his intelligence and command of the issues were clear but he was less so. The man used to talk as if he were reading a spreadsheet. In the succeeding years, as House Budget Chairman, he's become used to the national spotlight and seems comfortable speaking in terms people use at their kitchen table. He's likeable, young (at 42, only two years older than Rubio), and will be good at the convention and on the stump. He can speak to younger voters in terms they'll identify with: this is your money Obama is spending, folks, and if you elect us we'll make sure you can keep it and enjoy a better life than your parents have had.
The third big reason is that Ryan can compensate for Romney's weakness on Obamacare. We learned last week, thanks to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala), that Obamacare will add about $17 trillion in new unfunded budget liability -- debt -- over the next 75 years. While Romney must continue his promise to repeal Obamacare (assuming that the Supreme Court will sustain it, which seems unlikely) Ryan can add an attack from a different angle. Like Medicare, this nation cannot -- and should not -- sustain the cost of Obamacare, and Ryan can make that case.
It's not often that the cautious and safe choice of a running mate can bring with it the added strength of star power that can capture voters' attention and loyalty. Ryan has an unusual sort of star power, which is the fourth big reason to choose him.
Ryan, as those who have met him can attest, is a warm, personable kind of guy. Every politician feigns warmth, but Ryan's is real. As solidly conservative as anyone, he's not a hot-button social conservative who will alienate independents and moderates. He could be the vehicle that Romney rides to reach the people we used to call "Reagan Democrats," the fiscal conservative, social moderates who can constitute the margin of victory in November. One of the biggest reasons he can do this is that he understands why Republicans have lost them.
Ryan -- quoting again from the Almanac -- said after his selection as top Republican on the Budget Committee in 2007, "We lost our brand as the party of fiscal responsibility, and we're going to get it back. It's important that we give voters a very clear choice on fiscal policy." Since then, his deeds have matched his words. That's the sort of star power that can make the difference between victory and defeat.
Mitt Romney will choose his running mate based on whatever criteria he has in his mind. On Saturday, he was on the campaign trail in Wisconsin with Ryan at his side. It must have occurred to him that Ryan is precisely the man he needs at his side throughout the fall campaign.
Paul Ryan for Vice President. He's the choice Romney needs to make.