When Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate, there were inevitable comparisons to John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin. They were both served up as red meat to the conservative Republicans who were never quite comfortable with McCain or Romney.
Palin electrified the 2008 Republican convention with her pitbull-with-lipstick speech. (In the campaign movie Game Change, Julianne Moore doesn’t even come close to capturing the hard-edged energy that Palin delivered that night.)
Now as Ryan prepares to introduce himself to the country with his convention speech tonight, it’s worth noting just how different he is from Palin.
Palin came up through grassroots politics, a small-town city council member and mayor before becoming Alaska’s governor. Her out-of-the-blue selection sent the press into a feeding frenzy of trying to figure out who she was: her influences, her ideas, her record. Who was this woman and what did she stand for, really? When Katie Couric famously asked her what newspapers she reads, Palin took it as a condescending gotcha question, not the softball it was probably meant to be.
Congressman Paul Ryan could not be more different from Palin. While he styles himself as a homespun Wisconsinite, he’s more a creature of Washington, DC and the product of a conservative movement that has been engaged in ideological purification of the Republican Party. Romney’s pick was less about the man himself, and more as an embrace of a specific collection of ideas, influences and personal networks he represents. Ryan is the product of Capitol Hill staff meetings and conservative Washington think tanks. He is the result of an evolution within the Republican Party that began well beyond the financial crisis and the Tea Party rallies.
Ryan is the fruit of a decades-long cross-pollination of the individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand, the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek, the theology of the Catholic Church, and the mentorship of supply-siders like Jack Kemp (architect of the 1981 Reagan tax cut and Ryan’s predecessor as the G.O.P. vice presidential nominee 16 years ago,) and the tutelage of social conservative Bill Bennett.
The Ryan Budget (proposed by Ryan in his role as the chairman of the House Budget Committee) represents these ideas in action. In this sense, the details of Paul Ryan the person become merely a footnote to Paul Ryan the idea. And Romney’s choice of Ryan seems to be more about embracing that idea – and with it, the enthusiasm, machinery, and foot-soldiers of the conservative movement – than about winning a particular state (as opposed to senator Rob Portman, another potential veep pick who represents the crucial swing state of Ohio) or demographic (in contrast to senator Marco Rubio, who not only represents the swing state of Florida but is also Hispanic) or tapping into personal charisma (like New Jersey governor Chris Christie).
Ryan may have less executive experience than did Palin, who was a governor after all, but he’s seen as someone who has thought about the big challenges facing the country and staked out a position, however unsatisfactory. (His proposed budget has been attacked by Democrats, who say its tax cuts would grow the deficit, while Newt Gingrich once denounced Ryan’s proposal to transform Medicare for seniors into a voucher system as “right-wing social engineering.”) And, it’s worth noting that Ryan is a creature of Congress – a place where any president needs allies, as President Obama can attest.
While Palin seemed to be putting together her policy positions on national issues on the fly once she was a vice-presidential candidate, Ryan’s life work has been the translation of his ideology into policy, long before he was elected to office.
It was the more earthy kind of politics that come naturally to Sarah Palin that posed a challenge to Ryan. Today, a New York Times profile of Ryan includes a striking description of his first run for Congress in 1998 as a then young and unmarried man who had left the world of Washington policy wonks to return to his home state seeking votes:
Mr. Ryan would often take his sister-in-law and her baby to factories during the early-morning shift changes to campaign. “Lots and lots of people were getting the impression that was his wife and his baby, and this was critical for him,” [his Democratic opponent, Lydia] Spottswood said.
He also made advertisements in which he wore a hard hat, which left voters with “the impression of Paul that he was actively working in the construction trade and had a family and was older than he was,” she said.
“It was awesome to watch it,” she added. “It was like an acting job.”
Ryan won that race and has been consistently reelected ever since.