A potential Paul Ryan presidential run has sparked a lot of enthusiasm among conservatives who are depressed with a weak Republican field. But it has also prompted some conservatives to voice concerns about Ryan's path to the GOP nomination and victory in the general election--and what failure in either contest would mean for Ryan and his cause.
I'll try to respond to the Ryan skeptics' arguments one at a time.
1. Ed Morrissey writes that Ryan's lack of executive experience will hurt him: "The fumbles of Obama will allow Republicans to argue that his failed presidency results in part from his inability to handle executive power, but we can’t make that argument at the same time that we’re offering a candidate who has never held executive office in any context at all."
The case against Obama isn't that he's an inexperienced liberal--it's that he's a conventional and committed liberal. How would a liberal with executive experience have governed differently than Obama? The 44th president has actually been quite effective at implementing his preferred policies. But liberalism--Obamacare, stimulus spending, "leading from behind"--just doesn't work.
So one of the most important jobs of a president is to enact good policies. That requires intelligence, sound judgment and principles, the ability to persuade, courage, and character. Real leadership, as opposed to executive experience, is what matters. And with his budget, Ryan has led on economic growth, spending, and health care--the central issues in American politics in 2012--as much or more than any other politician in America.
One needn't sign bills into law as a governor to be a leader. After all, one-term former congressman and failed Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln did not have any executive experience when he was nominated in 1860. But he did lead on the most pressing issue of the day by proving in the Lincoln-Douglas debates to be the most persuasive opponent of the expansion of slavery.
I'm not putting Ryan on the same pedestal as our nation's finest president, but Lincoln clearly shows that one doesn't need to be a CEO or a governor to be a good president. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were all governors. And yet all four were very different presidents. The reason Carter was the worst isn't because he didn't have as much experience as the others. It's because he was the most liberal.
2. Allahpundit doubts that Ryan has a path to the nomination:
What makes Ryan significantly different from, oh, say, Tim Pawlenty? They’re both young, smart, soft-spoken midwestern conservatives. Pawlenty had the added advantages of eight years of executive experience and, unlike Ryan, no TARP vote to his record for his opponents to use against him. And he ended up flatlining in Iowa five months before the caucuses. Ryan’s advantage, of course, is that he’s hugely respected on the right among both the grassroots and the establishment for his boldness in pushing entitlement reform. [...]
Beyond that, where’s he getting the money to compete with Bachmann in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire, and Perry in South Carolina? [...]
Who’s more electable: Sixtysomething former governor Mitt Romney and his message of jobs and economic growth or fortysomething-going-on-25 congressman Paul Ryan and his message of overhauling grandma’s benefits (which of course isn’t actually his message)?
The difference between Ryan and Pawlenty isn't just that Ryan has boldly pushed for entitlement reform. Ryan is a charismatic and authentic conservative, while presidential candidate Pawlenty was not. Ryan might not knock every speech out of the park, but sometimes he does.
He's even better when he's talking to constituents at town hall meetings. This spring he held 18 of them in his district and took questions on just about every issue under the sun. While Ryan is known in Washington for being super-wonky, he connected with average voters by answering every question clearly and concisely. There's a reason why Ryan ran 17 points ahead of John McCain in a midwestern swing district in 2008.
The debates would also give Ryan a chance to surpass Romney. The beginning of the end of Tim Pawlenty's campaign came when he failed to defend his "Obamneycare" attack. Would Ryan shrink from criticizing Romneycare? Or would he dismantle Romneycare like he ripped apart Obamacare at the White House?
For Ryan to win the nomination, he'd have to win New Hampshire. That means he probably has to finish ahead of Mitt Romney in Iowa and become the alternative to the winner in Iowa (Rick Perry or, for Ryan, hopefully Michele Bachmann). Money really isn't a big issue. Ryan would have more than enough to get his message out in Iowa and New Hampshire.
And is a technocratic Mormon from Massachusetts really more electable than a seven-term congressman from a swing district in a battleground state?
3. The best argument against a Ryan run is that a loss would cripple his cause. More from Allahpundit:
There are two great risks to a Ryan candidacy. One: He’ll succeed in turning the focus of the primaries from economic growth to entitlement reform. We can argue about whether that’s a good thing — although Americans care much more about the former than the latter, it may be that this conversation simply can’t wait another moment — but if the party ends up with Ryan’s agenda, it had sure better have Ryan as its nominee too. The worst outcome would be if he shifts the discussion but then ends up losing the nomination, leaving the nominee stuck having to champion Ryan’s goals albeit less effectively than Ryan himself would/could do. And two: A run risks destroying Ryan’s brand. If he jumps in and gets Pawlenty’d in Iowa and New Hampshire, he goes back to D.C. knowing that his reform agenda was rejected even by ardent Republican voters. That would cripple him on the Hill; even if the GOP cleaned up on election day, a new Republican Congress would suddenly be reluctant to pass his budget. He’s taking a big risk on a very long longshot and it could end up setting back not just his political career but his cause.
But the Democrats are already going to run hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads on Republican support for entitlement reform. Romney has said he'd sign Ryan's plan if it came across his desk. Rick Perry is already pretty far out there on entitlement reform, (accurately) calling Social Security and Medicare "Ponzi scheme[s]" and suggesting we should consider replacing these federal programs with state programs.
If Ryan is the best person to defend the Ryan plan, then why shouldn't he run? True, Ryan is known most for his Medicare reform, so the media would dwell on overhauling Medicare more if he were the Republican nominee. But would the additional media scrutiny really swing the election one way or the other?
I know it sounds crazy, but I don't think the "Paul Ryan wants to kill grandma" attacks would be all that effective. As the campaign progresses, the fact that Ryan wouldn't touch Medicare for anyone 55 or over would become more well known, and he'd get to counterpunch by campaigning against Obamacare--an actual law about to go into full effect if Obama isn't defeated--and its looming death panels. If Ryan is the most articulate and forceful critic of Obamacare, then why shouldn't he run?
If Ryan fails to win the nomination, I don't see how that destroys his cause. Republican primary voters could choose to vote for Perry, Romney, or Bachmann over Ryan for any number of reasons. If Ryan loses the nomination, it's not like the looming debt crisis will magically disappear. The next president--of either party--will have to enact some sort of entitlement reform or face national fiscal ruin and be remembered as the 21st century's Herbert Hoover.
4. Jim Antle writes that Ryan is vulnerable because he's strayed from the conservative line by voting for TARP and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. He also voted for the auto bailout.
These issues are probably his biggest vulnerabilities in a Republican primary, but Ryan defends his votes not in the self-righteous tone of a John McCain but as a conservative who chose the least bad option. You can listen to his defense of the Medicare vote here, and here's what he told the Daily Caller about TARP and the auto bailout:
TARP. I’ll take one at a time. I believe we were on the cusp of a deflationary spiral which would have created a Depression. I think that’s probably pretty likely. If we would have allowed that to happen, I think we would have had a big government agenda sweeping through this country so fast that we wouldn’t have recovered from it. So in order to prevent a Depression and a complete evisceration of the free market system we have, I think it was necessary. It wasn’t a fun vote. You don’t get to choose the kind of votes you want. But I just think as far as the long term objectives that I have — which are restoring the principles of this country — I think it was necessary to prevent those principles from being really kind of wiped out for a generation.
Auto. Really clear. The president’s chief of staff made it extremely clear to me before the vote, which is either the auto companies get the money that was put in the Energy Department for them already — a bill that I voted against because I didn’t want to give them that money, which was only within the $25 billion, money that was already expended but not obligated — or the president was going to give them TARP, with no limit. That’s what they told me. That’s what the president’s chief of staff explained to me. I said, ‘Well, I don’t want them to get TARP. We want to keep TARP on a [inaudible]. We don’t want to expand it. So give them that Energy Department money that at least puts them out of TARP, and is limited.’ Well, where are we now? What I feared would happen did happen. The bill failed, and now they’ve got $87 billion from TARP, money we’re not going to get back. And now TARP, as a precedent established by the Bush administration, whereby the Obama administration now has turned this thing into its latest slush fund. And so I voted for that to prevent precisely what has happened, which I feared would happen.
Maybe conservatives won't find these explanations good enough, but will TARP and the auto bailout really be decisive issues for primary voters? Reaction to the bailouts may have inspired the Tea Party, but TARP isn't what truly animates the Tea Party today. Runaway spending and Obamacare are the issues that turned the Tea Party from a small band of rabble-rousers into a full-fledged anti-Obama movement. Sarah Palin and Herman Cain initially supported TARP and they're Tea Partiers in good standing.
Of course, the real question is not whether Ryan has vulnerabilities, but whether they're worse than Romney's or Perry's.
On one hand, Perry can boast of Texas's fantastic jobs numbers. On the other hand, he'll have to respond to allegations of crony capitalism. He's a Washington outsider with personal charm, but Republicans concerned about electability may fear his rough talk and swagger (George W. Bush without the compassion) will alienate suburban swing voters. While Perry's public prayer should help him with evangelicals, social conservatives will be spooked by his HPV vaccine mandate and his 2008 endorsement of presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani--also known as "pro-abortion, pro-same sex marriage Rudy Guiliani" to Mike Huckabee, winner of the 2008 GOP Iowa caucuses. Some conservatives will also take issue with Perry's opposition to the Arizona immigration law and his mixed record on immigration in general.
As the 2008 GOP primary runner-up, Romney starts out as the clear front-runner in New Hampshire, and he polls the best against Obama. But those poll numbers may largely be a function of name recognition. Romney can tout his business experience (we all know he doesn't want to talk about Romneycare, his flip-flops, and his tenure as governor), but isn't being the executive of Bain Capital also a liability for him? Romney lacks charisma. And Democrats are sure to make an issue of his Mormon faith. (I'm not saying that's fair, but it's just a fact that the bias against Mormons is stronger than the bias against other religious and ethnic minorities.)
So are Paul Ryan's liabilities really worse than Perry's or Romney's? I think not. And without a leader like Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush in the race to champion his cause, why shouldn't Ryan run for the presidency?