Let’s assume Ryan gets in and loses and, say, Tim Pawlenty wins the nomination. After “pushing off” from Ryan in the primaries, Pawlenty would be far better situated to tell Obama in the general, “Look, you’re running against Paul Ryan. He’s not on this stage. I am. I beat Paul Ryan. Deal with me and my ideas.”
In many ways, if Ryan doesn’t run we’ll have a similar problem to the one we had in 2008. There was no stand-in for Bush in the primaries, so there was nobody the candidates could differentiate themselves from in order to be the “not-Bush” or “anti-Bush” candidate. By the time McCain won the nomination, Obama could claim that electing McCain would amount to a third Bush administration. Without Ryan, the man of the moment, in the race, and without an obvious stand-in for him, the Republicans will be saddled with the Ryan plan whether they endorse it or not. And that means Obama will be able to run against a demonically caricatured Ryan instead of the actual nominee. ~Jonah Goldberg
This is still a terrible idea. Imagine for a moment that Dick Cheney had decided to run in 2007-08, and he ran explicitly as the candidate in favor of continuing Bush’s policies in the most uncompromising way. The problem facing the 2008 field would have been worse than the one they had. Instead of being able to duck the Bush legacy and avoid mentioning as much as possible, which is usually what they did (and it was why they never stopped talking about Reagan), they would have been confronting it at every debate. On all of the issues that made Bush-Cheney so unpopular, they would all feel compelled to agree directly with Cheney. In fact, on most of the national security and foreign policy issues that made Bush and Cheney unpopular, they did agree with Cheney, but they didn’t have to stand next to him on stage while they did so. As Ross pointed out in the spring of 2007, “If you consider how the nation’s most ambitious Republicans are positioning themselves for 2008, Bushism looks like it could have surprising staying power.” For the most part, the GOP field in 2008 did not run from Bush or Bushism, and the candidate substantively most aligned with Bush became the nominee.
By 2007, McCain was more in agreement with Bush than any other Republican candidate. The main difference McCain had with the Bush administration was that he was not supportive of torturing detainees. In many of the most important respects, McCain’s campaign did promise to usher in a third Bush term. McCain was able to exploit the common misunderstanding that he was the antithesis of Bush on the grounds that they hated each other after the 2000 race, but having a Bush stand-in during the primaries would have made it impossible to sustain that conceit. Because McCain’s rivalry with Bush was fundamentally a personal one, and because it was not based in any meaningful policy differences, he could not have maintained the illusion that he was at odds with Cheney or someone like him, because he actually agreed with Cheney on most things.
If Ryan is absent from the race, that gives the other candidates some more room to maneuver. They can approve of Ryan’s overall goals without endorsing his plan in every detail, and they can do this without having to criticize Ryan or Ryan’s plan explicitly during the nominating contest. Once Ryan becomes a competitor in the race, the other candidates will bear in mind the condemnations heaped on Gingrich and will probably mute their criticisms, so there will be little of the “pushing off” Goldberg describes. Meanwhile, the other campaigns will use Ryan’s own rather underwhelming record on fiscal issues to discredit him, and Ryan will have wasted months of valuable time on a pointless presidential run.
Paul Ryan should ignore this sort of advice:
I think he could go all the way. I think he’s as close as we’ll ever get to an “Obama” candidate this year — a charismatic guy who taps into something in the zeitgeist and can articulate it in a compelling way.
The trouble is that he isn’t tapping into “the zeitgeist.” Obama was running against the legacy of one of the most unpopular Presidents in the postwar era, and he was identified with opposition to an overwhelmingly unpopular war. Ryan is proposing a significant policy change that is not at all popular, and if he ran he would be doing so against a reasonably popular incumbent President. His charisma is not the issue. On many other issues apart from budget questions, Ryan has unformed or merely conventional views that he has hardly ever had to defend. In all seriousness, do Republicans want to put a budget wonk Congressman with no executive experience up against an incumbent President? No, they don’t, and so the call for Ryan to join the race remains a cry of desperation rather than a credible alternative.