by E.C. Fish on August 13, 2012

ISSUE OF THE WEEK– ALL ABOUT PAUL: The second week in August is generally considered one of the slowest news weeks of the year, and this one showed every sign of being exactly that until MSNBC interrupted their Olympic coverage late Friday night to report that Mitt Romney had picked House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate and would announce Saturday morning in Norfolk, Virginia. Or maybe they didn’t. The coverage was anchored by NBC White House correspondent and political director Chuck “Politics Is A Sport” Todd, who almost immediately set about the difficult task of shoehorning the impending announcement into the existing horse race narrative, and his later dialogue with NBC correspondent Andrea “Mrs. Greenspan” Mitchell could almost have been some kind of human dressage event, wherein the object of the game is to dance around a point without ever actually touching it.

“Is this a game changer?” Chuck kept asking of anyone he could reach by phone or coax bleary-eyed and haggard into the studio, implicitly citing John Heileman and Mark Halperin’s book about the nomination of Sarah Palin and his own dangerously juvenile thesis that this is all somehow a game. The short answer to that question is yes, Chuck, it is, but the longer one would have to point out that it is unlikely to positively influence the outcome for the team calling the play. Like McCain’s nomination of Palin, Romney’s pick of Ryan is a political Hail Mary pass, a flashy but risky maneuver that could either gain considerable yardage or leave them hopelessly mired downfield as the minutes tick away. Like that nomination, it could even result in a touchback.

It is certainly not the work of a confident campaign. The last few weeks in the Romney campaign — featuring Mitt’s overseas Embarrassment To The Nation tour, continued controversy over his refusal to release his tax returns, critical objective analysis of his tax and spending proposals, and softening poll numbers — has given it very little to be confident about, and a significant portion of the commentary surrounding the running-mate decision has centered on how badly the campaign needed the distraction of an early announcement to give them a chance, however fleeting, to get their shit together before the convention on August 27. The problem is, it does so without addressing any of the issues it’s distracting from.

In fact, it goes a long way toward exacerbating some of them. While it may or may not be true that Romney is suppressing his tax returns because they show he paid no tax whatsoever in certain years, it is now indisputable that Romney has endorsed a tax regime under the Ryan plan that would eliminate the capital gains tax and thus leave him paying no taxes going forward. While Romney’s budget plans were dubbed “Robin Hood in reverse,” the Ryan plan dispenses with any pretense to gentleman banditry, effectively gutting any and all government services not involving guns and quite matter-of-factly passing the resulting savings on to the wealthiest. Romney’s complete lack of foreign policy experience, made so glaringly obvious by his recent travels, is helped not in the least by Ryan’s own complete lack of foreign policy experience — something that could prove crippling if there are significant international developments between now and November.

What it does change are the basic operating assumptions of the Romney campaign thus far. Romney had been positing this election as a referendum on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy to the point of flatly refusing to talk about anything else, including what he proposed to do instead. With the ultraconservative Ryan now in the number two slot on the ticket and his ultra-austere budget plan the de facto Romney campaign position, Romney has now defined himself — and the choice between him and Obama — in stark ideological terms, terms which he will actively have to defend. After a campaign spent criticizing the president for his lack of business experience and selling his own as a positive reason to vote for him, Romney has nominated a second with no business experience whatsoever.

This also plays hell with the accepted beltway narrative for a contemporary presidential campaign, which tells of a primary season spent courting the base followed by a pivot to the center for the general. In picking Ryan, Romney — who never appreciably won over the base, having not so much won the primary season as survived it — is doing precisely the opposite, and doing so in a way that may prove extremely unpopular with moderate and independent voters. And even here, the supposed master panderer has done an amazingly poor job. A ticket meant to appeal to Christian conservatives now consists of a Mormon and a Catholic, the latter of whom espouses the philosophy of a Russian atheist. A ticket meant to appeal to strong anti-Washington sentiment now has a vice-presidential candidate who — apart from the usual Joe jobs and some nepotistic titling in the family construction firm — has spent literally his entire career in the District.

And what a career it’s been. In almost thirteen years in the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan has passed exactly two bills. One of them concerned the naming of a post office in his district. Said post office was named after a Democrat.

It also plays hell with the campaigns of dozens of Republican House and Senate candidates, who have been trying to distance themselves from the Tea Party in races nationwide. For all their supposed influence, the Tea Party actually represents a small and dwindling number of actual voters and espouses some genuinely unpopular positions. By hitching his presidential aspirations firmly to them, Romney has put many of his down-ticket party mates in the untenable position of either criticizing the national ticket or losing. Among all but the true believers and the biggest sycophants in GOP circles, Romney’s announcement this weekend has caused something quite like alarm.

Among Democrats and progressives, it has caused all manner of glee, which while both enjoyable and invigorating — my girlfriend and I had planned to spend the weekend watching comedies, but have decided that we probably got more laughs out of watching the news — should not be allowed to lead to overconfidence, despite the high degree of ineptitude it displays about the opposition. However many fish in a barrel we may have to shoot over the next few months, now is not the time to be stingy with the ammunition.


E.C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen.

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