Mitt Romney, left, and his vice presidential running mate Rep. Paul Ryan… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
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.
PHOTOS: Paul Ryan announced as Romney's running mate
One risk for Romney is that Ryan is a leader of what may be the most unloved political institution in America. Another is that, rather than having a serious debate about Washington's fiscal mess, the Obama campaign will simply unleash the stinging and often hyperbolic critiques that Democrats have made of Ryan's budgets. We don't trust Ryan's tax-cutting math, and we're skeptical of his proposals to transform Medicare into limited insurance subsidies and to cap federal spending on Medicaid, but we agree that neither program is sustainable without reforms. And it was probably just a matter of time before the Obama campaign loosed those attacks on Romney anyway, given his praise for Ryan's plan.
The other suggestion Romney makes by picking Ryan is that the Republican strategy will turn less on attracting independents than turning out loyalists. The brainy Ryan should help Romney shore up his conservative base and motivate tea party voters. That's because Romney's pick says the race isn't about governing, it's about changing government.