Even if he loses, he'll be back for more of the sameImagine for a moment that you are a political junkie. Imagine next that you on the way toward a vacation in the Mojave Desert where you know that you will have absolutely no access to the internet for four days. Imagine that you are on a desolate highway, half an hour from the point at which you expect your connection to the outside world to end. Now imagine that your Twitter stream starts filling up with the breaking news that presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has just selected Rep. Paul Ryan as his
Vice Presidential Unit running mate against President Obama, and while everyone else in the political scene is analyzing, speculating, and responding rapidly, there's nothing for you to do but know that in a few days' time, you'll finally have a chance to observe the fallout.
Such a disconnected environment lends itself well to idle speculation around the only relevant question out there: Why on earth did he do that? It's common practice that a presidential ticket would want its second fiddle to be someone who seems to drag it to the center, rather than someone who represents the ideological fringe of the nominee's party; someone who is perceived as benign and is generally well-liked, rather than someone whose signature piece of legislation went down in flames. And even if that weren't the case, the last thing a nominee would want to do is jeopardize his party's chances at holding onto the House majority that would be driving the agenda of his first term, should he attain the presidency. Yet in one fell swoop on a Friday evening, Romney did exactly that, affiliating his candidacy with the darling vanguard of the far right while giving Congressional Democrats everything they could possibly want in terms of an electoral bogeyman for their campaigns. This deviation from what seems to be common sense, and what is certainly expected practice, raises the question of whether the Romney campaign believes he has a serious chance at winning.
Despite the neck-and-neck nature of national polling, the only math that matters in a presidential election is that of the electoral college, which presents a far less rosy picture for Romney. At this stage in the game, even Karl Rove has indicated that even if Romney won every single state that is a true tossup right now, Obama would still cruise to reelection. CNN's electoral map is somewhat more favorable, but any extended manipulation of the interactive map leads to the conclusion that most any viable path to a Romney victory must include a sweep of Florida, Ohio and Virginia?and even then, there are plausible scenarios under which the president could earn another four years by holding his support in Midwest and Mountain West. Even worse, only about five percent of voters in swing states report being open to changing their minds, meaning that for Romney to have an even-money chance, some sort of sea change in the electorate would have to arrive before the election.
The extremist nature of the conservative right presents another quandary. Despite its fervent loathing of President Obama, the activist base is lukewarm toward its party's presumptive nominee. Republicans know that they can't win this election if the base turns out, but what it would take to motivate the base could harm the candidate with the ever-shrinking number of swing voters that he would need to mount a comeback. All in all, if you're a Republican looking to get rid of President Obama in the short term, none of this bodes well: Master prognosticator and statistician Nate Silver currently gives Obama a better than two-to-one chance at winning in November. And while that constitutes an improvement for Romney compared to last week's forecast, it's hard to imagine that at least some of those gains won't be given back as Democrats continue to pound the drums of war against the extremist Ryan budget.
But if, by contrast, you're a conservative ideologue looking to push the transformation of Medicare into a profit program for private insurers even further into the realm of ideas that can be discussed as legitimate in American politics, the pick of Ryan as second in command is self-explanatory. Given the odds of defeat that the ticket faces as whole, it could be considered far better in the long run from their perspective to have Ryan on the ticket and force the open-air debate about whether to dismantle the Great Society rather than pick someone more moderate who could at best only slightly improve Romney's odds pulling off what would at this point be an upset. After all, it matters far less if Romney loses if his campaign manages to kick the can of wholesale privatization a few feet further down the road of ideological acceptability.
The first challenge for President Obama and Congressional Democrats will be to avoid all the pitfalls and do the work necessary to get boots on the ground and win. But the second will be to make explicitly clear that the defeat of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will not just be of them as candidates, but will rather constitute a wholesale rejection of the extremism that forced Ryan onto the ticket in the first place.