The Ryan Gamble

Stuart Rothenberg August 11, 2012 · 10:34 AM EDT

My reaction to hearing that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would pick U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) to be his running-mate was almost the same as when I heard John McCain had selected then-governor Sarah Palin (Alaska) to be his vice-president four years ago, though for very different reasons.

Ryan, like Palin, is a bold but risky pick. He could be a terrific choice, or he could be a terrible one. It certainly is not the safe choice that someone like former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty would have been.

Of course, the differences between Ryan and Palin are huge. While I had never met Palin, never set eyes on her and knew little or nothing about her record or speaking style when she was announced, Ryan is a known commodity. And while Palin was unprepared for the national spotlight, Ryan has been in it and shown himself to be thoughtful and articulate.

I first met Ryan when he came in for an interview during his first race for Congress in 1998, a race I initially expected him to lose to nurse Lydia Spottswood (D). As I wrote recently in Roll Call, I found Ryan to be bright and articulate. But, back in 1998, he was not yet 30 years old and his career consisted of working as a staffer on Capitol Hill. He didn’t look like someone who was going to win in a district that was difficult for any Republican.

But Ryan outworked Spottswood, who turned out to be a weaker candidate than everyone expected, and before Election Day rolled around, my assessment of that race had changed. Ryan became the favorite to win, which is what he did.

Since then, Ryan has become a major figure on Capitol Hill and in the Republican Party. He is smart, personable, down to earth and able to explain complicated economic choices and issues clearly. He is no Sarah Palin.

Still, like Palin, Ryan is a high risk choice.

Democrats rightly are licking their chops at the thought of Ryan, who is associated with a detailed budget plan that could now define Romney.

While Republicans paint the Wisconsin Republican’s plan as a bold one that will get the nation’s economic house in order, shrink government and address our growing debt, Democrats will attack it (as they have been doing for months) as a threat to Social Security and Medicare and an attack on the middle class.

For months it has been clear that Romney needs to make the presidential race into a referendum on President Obama’s performance, particularly on the economy. Romney’s selection of Ryan makes it easier for Democrats to make the contest into a choice: Obama’s agenda and goals versus the Ryan budget and the agenda of House Republicans.

Conservatives, of course, think that their ideas are better, so they have been pushing for Ryan. But it isn’t clear that voters will prefer Ryan’s approach to Obama’s, particularly during the frenzy of a campaign during which wild charges are more likely than a thoughtful discussion of long-term economic policy.

Selecting Ryan appears to be an acknowledgement by the Romney campaign that President Obama has succeeded in driving the agenda, turning the election from a referendum on jobs and the president’s performance into a personal choice between Obama and Romney, the former Bain executive who won’t release his tax returns.

If Romney’s strategists now believe that the election has become about their party’s nominee – and if they believe that Romney isn’t likely to win under those circumstances, as they probably do – then selecting Ryan is more understandable.

For while Ryan gives Democrats a specific target to attack on budgetary issues and priorities, his selection also returns the discussion to the economy, the budget, the deficit and jobs – the issues that Romney needs the election to be about.

The selection of Ryan isn’t about energizing the GOP base or pleasing conservatives. It is about redefining the contest away from personality and tax returns and back to the economy. And it is about leadership and making tough decisions.

The Democrats’ knee-jerk reaction will be to focus on Ryan and his budget proposal, demonizing him and it. But is President Obama more likely to win an argument over the deficit, the budget and Social Security or over Romney’s relationship with Bain and his taxes? It’s an interesting question.

Ryan’s selection could potentially change the dynamic in the fight for Congress. It gives Democratic candidates nationally a potentially important narrative to appeal to swing voters. “Now with Congressman Ryan on the ticket, House Republicans face the one thing they hoped to avoid – a national debate on their budget that puts millionaires first and Medicare and the middle class last,” said DCCC Chairman Steve Israel in a statement.

I’m skeptical that the Ryan pick will fundamentally change many races, but we will now hear Democrats asserting that it will.

At the end of the day, voters select between the presidential nominees and parties, not between the vice-presidents or even the tickets. The hoopla over the Ryan selection will fade between now and November.

But since Romney’s choice of Ryan isn’t merely a safe one, it is worth watching to see whether or not it changes the campaign’s dynamic. The selection of Ryan has the potential to be an important shot in the arm for Romney, maybe even a game-changer, or an albatross around his neck.