In 1992, Bill Clinton picked Al Gore, a Southerner who was just as wonky (though not as charismatic) as the fellow at the top of the ticket. Over two terms, Gore did the unglamorous but important work of streamlining the federal government.
Dick Cheney, a man well-versed in the workings of Washington, was given the task of finding a vice president for George W. Bush in 2000. In what turned out to be grand foreshadowing, Cheney selected himself as Dubya’s running mate. Over two terms, Cheney broke the mold of what had been the traditional role of a vice president.
In 2008, Barack Obama, not even through his first term as a senator, selected Joe Biden, a politician with 35 years in the U.S. Senate. Biden brought to the ticket a vision of an old-school East Coast Democrat who could attract blue-collar voters. His tenure as vice president has been decidedly lower-key than that of his immediate predecessor.
John McCain’s 2008 selection turned out to be a nightmare. For years to come when the Republican establishment gathers around a campfire to tell spooky stories, they will whisper of the horror of picking an untested and undisciplined diva as a running mate. Say the words “Sarah Palin,” and watch them shudder with fear.
Over the weekend, Team Romney introduced the man it hopes will serve as vice president under Mitt Romney. Paul Ryan is a Wisconsin congressman who has thrilled conservatives with his bold (albeit radical) ideas about dismantling what Republicans call the “welfare state.”
So, what can we learn from this pick about how a Romney administration would lead?
First off, Ryan is no Palin. The Wisconsin Republican has seven terms in the U.S. House under his belt. Over that time, he’s shown himself to be skilled at sticking to the script and not fumbling when he finds himself in the media spotlight, two talents that will be absolutely necessary over the next three months.
Romney has selected a running mate to his right, or at least to the right of how Romney led as governor of Massachusetts. While Romney’s positions have shifted over the years, the same can’t be said of his running mate’s record. Rep. Ryan has consistently articulated a conservative vision for the United States. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has offered specifics on how he would fundamentally transform Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. (On this score, we’re grading on a curve because even though he voiced part of his plans, Ryan has fallen far short of the level of detail required to properly sell these ideas to the American public.)
Ryan’s conservatism is proving popular with conservative Republicans. That’s part of the point of the pick, to reassure the Republican Party’s conservative base that Romney won’t go all “wobbly,” as Margaret Thatcher might say.
How a Romney-Ryan ticket will play with undecided voters in a few battleground states is less certain. We can be assured that the Obama campaign will do its best to paint Ryan’s policies in the worst possible light.
That means the ultimate test for Romney’s pick comes on Nov. 6.