Ever hear the theory that books are magic? If you ask a question and have faith that you are guided, supposedly you can open a book to any page and it will have an answer for you (albeit one you need to interpret, especially if the book is about something very different than the question).
Being a good Political Scientist I decided to test the theory. While sitting atop my porcelain reading chair I grabbed Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Big Country,” which happened to be in the little reading basket next to the reading chair. “OK,” I said to the book and the spirits at large, “guide me, tell me, who will win the Presidential election, will Obama get re-elected?” I thought about the question, put my faith in the universe and opened the book.
Right away, I saw a big “O” standing alone on the sixth line. How many solitary O’s are in the book? The page number was 200 — second term. Then on the first two lines he describes calling the social security office and having the phone answered after 270 rings. Get that – 270 is the number of electoral votes needed, and Paul Ryan’s views on social security are likely to be driving Obama to victory.
Well, who can argue with a book that opens itself to a page so obviously predicting an Obama victory? At this point I can stop following the horse race, rest assured that the spirits of the netherworld have given me inside knowledge on the result, and focus on other things.
Seriously though, here are my initial reactions. One caution — in 2008 after McCain chose Palin I wrote a post gushing about how she was a smart choice, published August 30. At that time I knew about as much about her as John McCain did when he chose her. A couple days later on September 2 I labeled her a dumb pick. Initial reactions can be wrong.
1. Romney’s campaign is in trouble. Rasmussen daily tracking notwithstanding, most non-partisan polls show Obama with a clear lead, both overall and in the swing states. Romney’s strategy to try to make the election a referendum on Obama failed; by defining Romney through attacks concerning taxes and Bain, Obama has made the election a choice. Romney is ditching his original strategy.
2. Romney’s campaign is in BIG trouble. Choosing Ryan is not just a rejection of his old strategy, but an embrace of a dangerous new approach. Ryan’s budget is full of political vulnerabilities — the Obama team already was going to try to hitch Romney to that budget, now it’ll be easier.
That is red meat stuff to conservatives, but until now the Romney camp figured conservatives would vote for him because, well, what choice do they have? Independents and swing voters would be the target, and the plan was to take out the Etch a Sketch and paint a centrist, pragmatic picture. They would make it vague enough not to piss off the base, but credible enough to convince those not happy with the direction the country was going.
That meshed with the rest of their original strategy – attack Obama, and then make Romney seem like a credible, safe, alternative with knowledge of economics. In dumping that first strategy they’ve also chosen to make this a campaign about ideas and ideology, something Romney has been loathe to do up until now.
3. Romney won’t be releasing his taxes. This isn’t a surprise, but think of what this means. Given how the Bain and tax issues have hurt Romney, the only reason NOT to release his tax returns is if he felt they’d be deadly to his campaign. Perhaps Harry Reid is right (after all, Romney’s denials are always ‘I paid a lot of taxes’ not ‘I paid a lot of federal income taxes’). Perhaps there are nefarious things involving off shore accounts that would damage him. In any event, he needs a major change of focus, and the only way to do that is to offer the Democrats a more lucrative target — ‘don’t go after me on taxes, go after Ryan’s budget.’ At least they can respond on that – the tax issue leaves them flat footed.
4. Romney needs a game change, not just help in Ohio or Virginia. If he thought it were close and he needed one of those states to improve his odds, he’d have safer picks with Portman or McDonnell. Ryan is a high risk/high reward type pick. Romney needs to change the conversation and the tone of the campaign.
5. Team Obama will try to link the two at the hip – Romney and Ryan represent the same values. That’s why I have RYN there, taking the letters common to their last names. This will be meant to diminish Romney (have him either overshadowed by or on a par with his young VP pick) and link Ryan’s very controversial budget and medicare positions to Romney’s campaign.
Will it work? Was this a smart pick? My first instinct is yes, it was a smart pick. Romney’s campaign has been a fiasco so far, his assumptions about what it would take to beat Obama have proven false — and team Obama has been ruthless and effective against him. This gives the country a real debate about the future and how to respond to the economic crisis. Rather than a vague “he had his chance, now give me mine,” the Romney campaign will defend their vision.
This will definitely NOT be a Palin like disaster. Ryan is already tested; he was at the President’s health care round table, he’s defended his budget and he’s been on stage at the national level, impressive and at ease. There is no chance he’ll bomb like Palin did — Romney isn’t impulsive like McCain, he thought through this choice. This adds youth and energy to the ticket.
On the other hand, Ryan’s a big target, and Team Obama isn’t about to change the conversation just because Ryan’s there. I suspect, however, it won’t make much of a difference. Intrade still has Obama’s chances at 59%, and usually the choice for number 2 doesn’t alter the fundamental dynamics of the race. While Palin was a negative pull on McCain, it’s hard to remember when a VP choice really made a difference in a positive direction. One reason this could be different is because it’s more than a change in personnel, it’s a change in strategy. The campaign just got more interesting.
So, we have our tickets: Obama-Biden vs. Romney-Ryan.