COLUMBIA — One of the things that makes politics such a compelling, and often horrifying, spectator sport is that it’s full of surprises.
None so far this season has been more surprising than Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. Although that was the outcome devoutly wished by conservatives, most commentators of all persuasions expected Mr. Romney to pick somebody safe, somebody who would help him win over the tiny fraction of prospective voters who say they are still uncommitted.
(That’s another thing about politics that’s hard to understand: How can any sentient American remain uncommitted as between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? And isn’t it at least a little disturbing to think that the course of the nation seems to rest with people who are so ignorant or so apathetic that they haven’t yet bothered to make up their minds? Who are those people, anyway? Could it be that they’re really just lying to the pollsters?)
Anyway, the consensus of the commentariat was that Mr. Romney would probably pick Sen. Rob Portman, who might help him win Ohio, or Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has the populist touch Mr. Romney lacks, or Sen. Marco Rubio, who might deliver Florida.
The actual announcement Saturday generated another surprise. Mr. Ryan was greeted as enthusiastically by Democrats as by Republicans. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell were so giddy I thought for a minute I’d stumbled onto Fox.
It turns out that the same beliefs that make Mr. Ryan so appealing to the right make him equally appalling to the left.
You might say he has the courage of Mitt Romney’s convictions. You might, that is, except that his new boss appears to be motivated by just one core conviction – that he should be president. His positions on major issues from health care to abortion rights to taxes have been, to put it kindly, flexible, shifting to meet the exigencies of the time.
Not so with Mr. Ryan. He knows what he believes, and those beliefs have only been amended modestly in the face of political reality. He doesn’t talk much these days about privatizing Social Security, for example, though he led the effort in the House of Representatives when George W. Bush proposed that.
When President Obama called him the “ideological leader” of the Republicans who control the House, he was accurate. It’s an ideology that appeared extreme when Barry Goldwater articulated it in 1964 but that has now given us the triumphant Tea Party, Todd Akin and even the 3.0 version of Mitt Romney.
Like many of his fellow “young guns” — that’s the title of the right-wing manifesto he wrote with Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy — Mr. Ryan was a fan of Ayn Rand until he discovered that she worshiped wealth rather than God. He now manages to do both.
Now that the choice has been made, many of the same pundits who confidently predicted someone else offer the explanation that the Romney campaign wasn’t going well and that he decided his vice president must be a game changer, to use one of the sports cliches that has infiltrated political discourse.
Mr. Ryan changes the game, all right, but not necessarily in the direction that favors Mr. Romney. One benefit of being vague, as is Mr. Romney’s sketch of a fiscal plan, is that your opponents don’t have much to get their teeth into. That’s the reason he has offered for refusing to reveal more than two years of tax returns.
Suddenly, with Mr. Ryan’s famously detailed budget and his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” there’s an abundance of detail, so much so that Mr. Romney is forced into the awkward position of distancing himself from his own partner’s product.
Early in Mr. Ryan’s career, he worked for Jack Kemp, who was also a smart, likable, outspoken right-wing ideologue. Like Mr. Ryan, Mr. Kemp had left a lengthy paper trail when he also was chosen as running mate by a charisma-challenged candidate who thought he deserved to be president but knew his campaign needed a personality implant. The Democratic incumbent then as now was widely viewed as vulnerable.
History doesn’t really repeat itself, of course, but I have to wonder whether Mr. Romney remembers the Dole-Kemp Administration.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.