So we have a VP candidate and the media have something to talk about. The term game-changer will be used as punctuation in every comment about it.
VeepCritique will not be left out, however the focus here is on the vice president as governing partner. So let’s dispense quickly with the politics of Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan and rush to how a Romney-Ryan team might work together.
The Politics of Picking Ryan
The impact of the vice presidential candidate is nearly always over-estimated (historic analysis is pretty consistent on this) and usually involves trade-offs. The candidate that appeals to the unaffiliated voter will perturb the base and vice-versa. There is no magic bullet in VP selection, the key is to do no harm and maybe get a bit of help.
This choice was over-shadowed by McCain’s unfortunate selection of Sarah Palin. Romney wanted to avoid this at all costs and he did. Ryan is young and telegenic (and really does look like he could be another member of the Romney brood.) But he is not an amateur; Ryan has been in the House of Representatives for seven terms and has become the party’s leading spokesman on the budget. One does not get that far in life merely by being cute.
Whether or not Ryan’s views will hurt or help Romney’s candidacy is tough to say. His budget plan gives plenty of fodder for the Democrats to rally their base – just as it gives the Republicans plenty of fodder to rally theirs. How it will impact the undecided voters is tough to say (presumably the ultra-analytical Romney team has done some pretty serious study of this question.) But most voters don’t do in-depth studies of complex issues, they make their decisions based on general impressions. Republicans mean less government and taxes – Democrats mean more government and taxes. The rest is commentary.
Finally, over the next decade the budget will be THE ISSUE. The United States is facing some pretty serious fiscal challenges – we can address them (we are the wealthiest society in history) but the sooner we do so the less difficult the adjustment. Ideally we would have taken this stuff on in the 1990s. One may not agree with Ryan’s plan – but at least he is in the game in a serious way.
Ryan as Governing Partner
The top determinant for the vice president’s role in an administration is whether or not the president is inclined to turn to his vice president for advice on critical decisions. It is unknown if Ryan and Romney have this kind of relationship. Often this friendship is forged in the heat of the campaign as the individuals and their staffs learn to work together.
One past indicator is that older Presidents do not tend to take advice from younger vice presidents. The most influential vice presidents in recent years have been Mondale (four years younger then the President), Gore (two years younger then the President), Cheney (Cheney five years older then the President), and Biden (19 years older then the President.) Quayle, by contrast, was 23 years younger then President Bush Sr. Another example is Eisenhower who was 23 years older then Nixon. This is the age difference between Ryan and Romney – it is not destiny, the sample of President-Vice President relationships is extremely small. But it could be a factor.
That being said, Ryan would almost certainly have a role in a Romney White House. It is extremely difficult to block the vice president out of the policy process. The West Wing office along with access to White House meetings and the President have become traditional perquisites of the vice president. They are not enshrined in law, but it would be embarrassing to remove them. It would be a public admission that the President did not have confidence in the Vice President.
Vice presidents strongly associated with a wing of their party are often expected to be their advocate within the White House. They are usually disappointed. The vice president can make the case, but ultimately the president decides and the vice president must publicly support the decision or risk alienating the commander-in-chief. Most vice presidents have advocated forcefully for positions that were not in line with their previous political views (and which they may have privately opposed).
Vice presidents are probably at their most influential as a high-level sounding board that can compensate for a President’s analytical weaknesses. President Carter, an engineer by training, labored over details in an effort to find perfect technical solutions. Mondale sought to remind him of the political realities that had to be taken into consideration. In contrast, Clinton had a fine-tuned political antenna and maneuvered according. Gore would counsel him to take stands on principle.
Whether Romney is open to having Ryan play this role is an open question. Ryan will almost certainly play an active role as advisor, administration spokesperson, and point of contact with Congress. Whether or not he will also be a source of influence in the administration is difficult to know, not only for outside observers, but probably for the candidates themselves.