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Mitt’s Ryan Message: Get Serious

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A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.

In selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney signals his determination to conduct a campaign of ideas.

In part, this decision almost surely stems from recent polls suggesting Romney couldn’t win a campaign of personalities.

The latest surveys all suggest that President Obama enjoys a small but significant lead over his Republican challenger, despite that big majorities think the nation is headed in the wrong direction and regular pluralities disapprove of the president’s job performance. The most significant Democratic edge involves the likability factor: by ratios of some 2 to 1, respondents believe that Obama is friendlier, more likable than Romney, and more likely to share the concerns of ordinary people.

Team Obama has ruthlessly pressed this advantage by investing all its resources in demonizing Romney rather than promoting the president’s record in office. The “Mitt Romney Killed My Wife” ad from Priorities USA and the “Mitt Wants to Pick Your Pocket” message from MoveOn.org represent only the most laughably shameless examples of the campaign. When Democrats spend significant money on television messages about Ann Romney’s horse and employ a tagline stating baldly that “Mitt Romney is not the Solution—He’s the Problem,” it’s obvious they mean to wage a campaign of personalities.

The one way for the GOP to regain momentum would be to return the campaign’s focus to the issues, where most Americans agree with them. More people want to see government do less than do more and prefer to see spending cuts rather than Obama’s “new investments.” According to Gallup, those who describe themselves as “conservative” outnumber those who call themselves “liberal” by nearly 2 to 1 (40 percent to 21 percent), which suggests that the GOP should win any election that focuses on ideology, rather than on vague notions of hope and change or questions of which candidate would make the most lovable neighbor over the backyard fence.

With that in mind, Romney boldly selected from the unequivocally conservative “R” menu of possible vice-presidential picks (Rubio and Ryan) rather than the less ideological “P” menu (Portman and Pawlenty). In the process, he picked Right-wing intensity over Pragmatism, sweeping Reform over incremental Practicality.

He also avoided repeating the horrors of another P-for-Personality Pick: Palin in 2008. With the profound unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration in its final months, John McCain and his advisers felt they had no chance to win a campaign of ideas or issues and so determined to push to victory on the strength of personal narrative. They would counter Obama’s compelling Kenya-meets-Kansas, barrier-breaking, community-organizer, hope-and-change fairy tale with an inspiriting story of their own. They meant to captivate the nation with an account of two untamable mavericks: the feisty war hero and former POW who never tired of tweaking his party’s establishment joined in righteous combat with the insurgent hockey mom and moose hunter from Wasilla with a son in the military, the ordinary-folks upstart who had shaken up the Republican old guard in exotic Alaska.

It worked for a while, helped to no small degree by one of Governor Palin’s most important P-word advantages: Pulchritude, or Prettiness.

But those who live by personality campaigns also can perish by them, and the Democrats piled on concerning every conceivable detail of the Palin family’s most intimate undertakings, from Bristol’s personal life to the firing of the governor’s state-trooper brother-in-law to disputes over dirty books in the Wasilla library. Meanwhile, the more radical aspects of the Obama agenda got little attention.

In part personal issues dominated the Palin campaign because her political experience remained so limited, with less than two years as governor before her nomination. It’s hard to establish a clear record on the issues when you’ve served in an important office for less than a full term.

Marco Rubio, a far more compelling personality with a far more compelling story than Paul Ryan has, would have offered similar problems, with less than two years as a U.S. senator. Though Rubio’s status as a brilliant communicator and his prior service as speaker of the House in the Florida Legislature made him far more prepared than Palin, nearly all the discussion about his candidacy would have concerned personal narrative, ethnic identity, and his nearly incomparable charisma.

Romney wanted a more issues-oriented focus, and he’s guaranteed to get it with Paul Ryan. For better or worse, Ryan’s “Roadmap for America” and budget plan—not cute stories about his family or upbringing—will be the focus of the Republican campaign. With Ryan, his positions on the questions of the day after seven substantive terms in the House stand as clear and courageous and inescapable.

Initial impressions: it’s good to go the R Route, rather than the P-for-Personality Pathway.

In 1975 a peerless Republican told the Young Americans for Freedom that the road to victory involved sketching clear differences with the opposition rather than blurring distinctions or concentrating on personal distractions. “Let’s have a new first party, a new Republican Party raising a banner of bold colors, not Pale Pastels.”

In that spirit, the Romney-Ryan ticket with its R-R Resonance evokes the most beloved (and successful) GOP candidate of them all: Ronald Reagan.

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