That would be the Republican primary campaign, when the former Massachusetts governor had to convince his party's base that he was "severely conservative," not squishily moderate as his primary opponents claimed.
By attaching himself to Mr. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and the Justin Bieber of the Republican right, Mr. Romney has sent his horse cavalry to protect his right flank from an air assault that will be coming from the center and the left.
Since Friday's announcement of Mr. Ryan as his vice presidential choice, Mr. Romney has been trying to put some distance between himself and the most radioactive of Mr. Ryan's many budget and policy ideas. On Sunday night's "60 Minutes," Mr. Romney said: "I have my budget plan. And that's the budget plan we're going to run on."
Probably not. Mr. Romney's own vague "plan" has been deemed "mathematically impossible" by a nonpartisan study. Also, he previously endorsed Mr. Ryan's plan as "bold and exciting" and "very much needed."
Unlike Mr. Romney's "plan," the latest iteration of Mr. Ryan's budget proposal, "The Path to Prosperity," is chock full of alarming specifics. The next generation of Medicare recipients (those 55 and younger) will get vouchers to buy private coverage. Mr. Ryan's plan envisions giving seniors enough help to pay for first-class medical coverage — in Britain or France. In the United States, the vouchers could leave them $6,000 a year short of what coverage will cost in 10 years.
As to Medicaid, the joint state and federal health insurance plan for the poor and disabled, Mr. Ryan would turn over full responsibility to state governments. Wealthy taxpayers would see big tax breaks; the poor and middle class would see tax increases and program cuts.
And then there's the rest of government. Unless massive amounts of revenue are raised by eliminating tax deductions and loopholes (which he hasn't been specific about), under the Ryan plan, federal spending for everything except defense, health care and Social Security would be zeroed out by 2050.
No doubt all of this delights Grover Norquist and the rest of the Americans for Tax Reform. If the goal for government, as Mr. Norquist once said, is "to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub," the Ryan plan — which, because Mr. Romney has defaulted on specifics is now the Ryan-Romney plan — ought to do it.
Mr. Romney has opted to try to turn the November election into a referendum on the size and role of the federal government. It's not a bad idea. The gamble, of course, is that rational people are ready for Mr. Ryan's drastic visions.
This is not well-tempered, well-balanced deficit cutting. This is budget-by-meat-ax. It separates Americans into self-anointed "Atlas Shrugged" achievers and everyone else. In the 1957 Ayn Rand fairy tale, the brilliance of the former drives an economy that feeds the latter.
Mr. Romney, having amply demonstrated during the primaries that he has no core principles of his own, is trying on Mr. Ryan's. In doing so, he has performed a miracle: He's made Sarah Palin look like a wise choice.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.