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Fighting to Win

The Romney-Ryan ticket welcomes a battle over entitlements.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Waukesha, Wisc.
So much for conventional wisdom. These things were considered either highly unlikely or impossible before August 10: Mitt Romney picking Paul Ryan as his running mate; the Republican presidential ticket choosing to campaign on Medicare reform; and Republicans actually winning that political fight. 

Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan


But Mitt Romney did pick Paul Ryan as his running mate. And the new Romney-Ryan ticket is, in fact, choosing to fight on Medicare reform. “Usually Republicans are talking about a lot of other things, but Medicare’s one of those that’s very important to talk about,” said Romney at a fundraiser Thursday in Greer, South Carolina. “We want this debate,” said Ryan, in an appearance the night before at his alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “We need this debate. And we will win this debate.” 

It’s early, but so far Ryan is right. Republicans, for the moment anyway, are winning the debate about Medicare reform.

One thing is clear: The campaign today is not the campaign it was before Paul Ryan was chosen. The 2012 presidential election will not be a narrow referendum on President Obama and the economy. Instead, it’ll be a bigger debate—about the short-term economy, to be sure, but also about the future of the country and about presidential leadership. 

The Romney case is a simple one: On the economy, President Obama led and failed. On foreign policy, he led from behind (some might say “followed”). And on deficits, debt, and entitlement reform, he didn’t lead at all. 

After Romney won the Wisconsin primary on April 3, effectively winning the Republican nomination, his campaign focused on the unemployment rate and the near-term economy, making the case that “Obama Isn’t Working.” When Gallup started its daily presidential tracking poll on April 15, Romney was leading Obama 47-45 percent. On August 10, the day before Romney formally announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, the race was tied, 46-46 percent. The RealClearPolitics average over that same timeframe had Obama growing his lead slightly, from 46.8-44.2 percent (+2.6 points) on April 15 to 48.3-44.1 percent (+4.2 points) on August 11. In the 10 polls taken by media organizations over the month before Ryan was picked, Romney was up in just 1, and in others he was behind by as much as 10 points. The day before Ryan was announced, NBC’s First Read declared: “It’s not even a race—Obama’s ahead.” 

On its own, that’s not surprising; leads in presidential races come and go. But what made it remarkable, and worrisome for the Romney campaign, was that Obama grew his lead as the country’s already poor economic condition deteriorated further. Over those four months, Americans saw disastrous unemployment reports—with average jobs gains of less than 100,000 per month—and virtually every discussion of the economy included the possibility that the United States would slip back into recession. Whatever the appeal of running safe, of running as the default alternative to an ineffective president, it plainly wasn’t working. 

If the change in course was clear the moment the world learned that Paul Ryan would be Romney’s running mate, it was dramatically underscored at a homecoming rally here in Ryan’s native Wisconsin the following day. 

 The event itself was just what the Romney campaign hoped it would be—a raucous affair that energized both the crowd and the candidates. An emotional Paul Ryan spoke warmly of his upbringing in Janesville and implored the audience to work hard to defeat President Obama. The crowd was filled with the kind of giddy excitement that results in awkward hugs and high-fiving with strangers. Romney, in what was perhaps the best speech of his campaign, told the audience why he’d chosen Ryan and touched on the themes of the big campaign to come. 

But the crowd in Waukesha was oblivious to the real news, which
was delivered quietly to the Blackberrys and iPhones of the reporters covering the campaign. “I wanted to advise you that Congressman Ryan will be visiting central Florida next weekend,” wrote Brendan Buck, a Romney campaign communications adviser assigned to Ryan. “There, he will highlight President Obama’s record of slashing Medicare for current Florida seniors to fund Obamacare. He will also note that the Romney-Ryan ticket is the only one with a bipartisan plan to strengthen Medicare for today and tomorrow’s seniors.”

The brief email included an excerpt from an interview that Romney and Ryan had given to 60 Minutes. Said Ryan:

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