Apologies for being late on the scene, but Mitt Romney chose to announce his VP pick on the first day of my vacation in Maine, and I had some travel snafus last night. At any rate, I am not a fan of Paul Ryan, but it’s easy to see why both conservatives and the Obama campaign are fans of this pick. They’re fans for the same reason, because putting Ryan on the ticket tends to cement the idea of the 2012 election as a choice between two competing ideological visions. Romney and Ryan will run on the principle that federal revenue should stay at its long-term historical average, even if that means completely abrogating the federal government’s longstanding commitment to the living standards of the elderly and to playing a certain role in financing of infrastructure and education nationwide. Obama and Biden will run on the principle that we should try to more or less find ways to keep meeting the programmatic commitments the federal government has upheld for the past 50 years.
There’s an ineluctable math built into the current federal budget that is forcing choices onto the table that make everyone think their own plan is moderate and their rivals are wild-eyed radicals. Never overestimate the impact of a vice presidential pick on a presidential campaign, but insofar as choosing Ryan makes a difference, the difference is to further focus attention on this choice.
But attention is to an extent a zero-sum game. And focusing attention on the big-picture disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about long-term fiscal policy means we won’t be focusing attention on what ought to be the most pressing economic policy issue of our time—mass unemployment and the tragic waste of human and economic potential it represents. To be sure, politicians will still talk about this. But obviously Obama would prefer at this point to talk about long-term vision and the contrast between his “balanced approach” and the GOP’s cut-cut-cut approach. With Ryan on the ticket, he more and more gets his way. Which means conservatives also get their way. Romney doesn’t just run as “Mr Fix-It” who’ll clean up the mess, he’s running as an ideological candidate with a major vision for changing the country. But that means the terrible economic performance since 2009 and the large jobs deficit built up during that period are going to receed further into the rearview mirror. Romney is essentially conceding that the past 18 months of 150,000 jobs per month are good enough to get Obama re-elected, and he needs to wage a campaign about something bigger.
Which means that, a bit weirdly, the issue that ought to dominate the campaign is going to fade into obscurity.