Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is Mitt Romney's Al Gore, a policy wonk who brings legislative experience and seriousness of purpose to the ticket. He is, in other words, no Sarah Palin. But Ryan is also the symbol of something more: a commitment to a particularly conservative vision of a smaller federal government, a scaled-back safety net and a lower tax burden. By choosing Ryan, Romney answered the critics (particularly on the right) who questioned whether his campaign had a vision for the future. If there were voters who harbored any doubt about the magnitude of the choice they face in November, they should no longer.
Although Romney has taken positions on an array of issues, the race so far has largely been a backward-looking and bile-spewing affair. The media deserve some of the blame for that, but so do the campaigns and their "super PAC" allies. In choosing Ryan, Romney may hope to shift the campaign from personal attacks to debates about fiscal policy. That's quixotic, but it would be a welcome change.
Ryan's presence on the ticket helps sharpen the contrast between President Obama's so-called "balanced" approach, which combines tax hikes and spending restraints, and Romney's ambition to rein in entitlements and discretionary programs while cutting taxes in the hope of spurring growth. Indeed, Ryan makes the GOP ticket more stubbornly ideological and less pragmatic. Ryan had the chance as a member of the White House deficit commission to back a bipartisan plan in 2010 to repair the federal government's finances, but he voted no because he wanted to roll back Obama's healthcare reform law and make a bigger dent in Medicare and Medicaid. The proposal fell a few votes short of the supermajority needed to send it to Congress.