The selection of vice presidential nominees is comprised of some of the most complex alchemy in American politics. Who balances a ticket.? Who’s competent to step into the main job? Who helps win a state or a region? Who can out-debate the other guy on live TV? Who initiates a buzz?
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) is loyal. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) would be “historic” as the first Indian-American. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) has the resume. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is youthful and could court Hispanic voters. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) could help win her home state which doubles as a swing state. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) can bark at surfers to “get the hell off the beach” when a hurricane threatens the eastern seaboard.
And then there’s Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).
If presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney wins and is already pragmatic about governing next year, he very well could choose Ryan as his number two.
Republicans believe they have a good shot at scoring control of the Senate. The conventional wisdom holds that the GOP will probably maintain control of the House of Representatives. However, nothing is certain with an electorate this volatile.
Still, Romney may stare into a crystal ball to see what it might take to shepherd initiatives to passage in Congress next year. And Paul Ryan may be able to help on that front.
In March and April, 2013, a President Romney would have to grapple with keeping the government open for business. Congressional leaders and President Obama have tentatively signed off on a six-month package to fund the government from this September 30 (the end of the federal fiscal year) through next spring. Some, like House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-VA) advocated a shorter stopgap bill, expiring around December 21. But if Romney is elected, one of his first big challenges may be finding a way to keep the lights on in Washington. In addition, a prospective Romney Administration may also have to wrestle with a possible hike in the debt ceiling (the legal threshold of government borrowing) and maybe even figuring out a way to shut off a slew of arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. This is to say nothing of a GOP-led effort to fundamentally reform the nation’s tax system for the first time since 1986.
In fact, rather than peering into a crystal ball, Romney may want to stare into the past to best understand the legislative conundrums which could await him. That’s because the biggest barriers to a President Romney might not come from Congressional Democrats but from Republicans.
Let’s start with a couple of examples from last year.
In March and April, 2011, Congress and the president narrowly averted shuttering the entire federal government. An interim spending bill (remarkably similar to the one which lawmakers hope to approve in September) was expiring. An emboldened group of Republicans, many of whom sported tea party affiliations or were dispatched to Washington to cleave spending, didn’t think that a plan to run the government for the rest of the fiscal year made cuts that were deep enough. Finally President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) brokered an agreement just hours before the deadline. In the end, the House approved the package 260-167. Fifty-nine Republicans voted no.
At that point, the GOP held 243 seats in the House. That meant Boehner could only lose 25 members of his own party before he needed backup from Democrats to keep the government open. 179 Republicans voted yes. But 81 Democrats joined Boehner to forestall a government closure.
History nearly repeated itself on September 21, 2011 when Congress voted on yet another interim package to sidestep a government shutdown when the spring bill expired. The House defeated the stopgap plan 230-195. In that scenario, 48 Republicans voted no. With 241 Republicans in the House that point, Boehner could only lose 23 Republicans before leaning on Democratic yeas. But Democrats weren’t much in a helping mood that time around. A scant six voted yes.
Then there were two major efforts to hike the debt limit last summer.
At first, Boehner and other Republicans tried to assemble their own package. The bill included spending cuts but also upped the debt ceiling. On July 28, 2011, the GOP leadership had to yank their own bill off the floor because the measure simply didn’t have sufficient votes to pass. The House finally approved it the next day by the most-narrow of margins, 218-210. In other words, flip four votes and it would have failed. With 240 Republican seats, the GOP could only lose 22 of its own before it needed Democratic support. The GOP lost precisely 22 Republicans on that vote as all Democrats voted no – except for five who weren’t there. That included then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who was convalescing from a gunshot wound to the head.
Republicans were barely able to pass their own bill.
Finally, the House okayed the overall debt limit package on August 1 on a 269-161 tally. Sixty-six Republicans voted no. Again, with 240 House Republicans, the GOP could only lose 22 on its own side before the package blew up. Democrats provided 95 yes votes.
So if such wide swaths of the House Republican Conference are against so many things – propounded by their own leadership – what exactly are they for?
That brings us to the so-called “Ryan Budget,” authored by none other than Ryan himself as chairman of the House Budget Committee. Officially billed as “The Path to Prosperity: Restoring America’s Promise,” Ryan’s blueprint curbs what’s called “non-discretionary non-defense spending at $1.029 trillion a year. In other words, outside of the Pentagon, the government can’t spend any more than $1.029 trillion annually on anything except entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. It charts a course to reining in spending, coverts Medicare to a voucher program for those born after 1956 and alters the tax code. The Congressional Budget Office estimated Ryan’s idea would balance the budget by 2030. The Ryan budget also includes several debt ceiling increases.
House Republicans approved the Ryan budget on April 15, 2011 by a vote of 235-193. Only four Republicans defected: Reps. Ron Paul (R-TX), Denny Rehberg (R-MT), Walter Jones (R-NC) and David McKinley (R-WV). All Democrats voted no.
Republicans reprised the Ryan budget on March 29 of this year. This time it passed 228-191. Again, there were zero Democratic yeas. But ten Republicans voted no. Jones, McKinley and Rehberg again voted nay. They were joined by Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), Joe Barton (R-TX), Jimmy Duncan (R-TN), Chris Gibson (R-NY), Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), Todd Platts (R-PA) and Ed Whitfield (R-KY).
And here’s the rub:
If Romney taps Ryan, Democrats would fall over themselves to make the Ryan budget the marquee issue of the presidential election. Democrats believe this aligns with their narrative that Republicans are callous and aloof to the nation’s problems. Some Republicans argue privately that this comes close to “guaranteeing” the re-election of President Obama. It also significantly bolsters the Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate and retaking the House.
Democrats would point to the marked changes in Medicare, eager to portray a Romney-Ryan ticket as one “wanting to slash health care benefits for grandma.” They’d highlight the tax changes as those which “reward the wealthy” by eliminating certain tax brackets and reducing corporate taxes from 35 to 25 percent. They’d also demonstrate how the plan eases taxes on gains reaped overseas – a perk not enjoyed by most Americans.
Of course, all vice presidential nominees come with a down side. Democrats would champ at the bit to expose the Ryan budget as the Republicans’ Achilles Heel. It’s possible the Ryan budget could create plenty of self-inflicted wounds. All of that could make Romney diffident to choosing Ryan.
But here’s the upside of a Ryan selection for the GOP:
Fiscal and economic issues have bedeviled Washington for more than four years. Every debate in Washington centers around spending, the burgeoning debt, the debt ceiling, the failure of the supercommittee to slash spending, possible government shutdowns, the explosion of entitlements and now, the pending sequester. Right or wrong, like him or not – there is no figure in the Republican party who has been so central to all of these issues than Paul Ryan. If the economy and fiscal issues are truly what the 2012 president election is about, then Ryan is straight out of central casting.
A possible Ryan selection speaks directly to the economic and fiscal issues which torment the nation. The GOP has argued for four years that they don’t like how President Obama did things. In 2010, people voted with their feet to demonstrate they vehemently disagreed with the approach of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). From the GOP vantage point, Paul Ryan authored the seminal prescription to fix the “Obama-Pelosi” agenda. And Republicans largely have stood beyond behind Ryan’s archetype.
Then comes governing.
All of these fiscal and economic issues will cascade onto Capitol Hill next year. The GOP will again wage battles to cut spending and keep the government running.
Did House Republicans vote yes on avoiding a government shutdown or hiking the debt ceiling? Yes. But all of those measures needed substantial help from Democrats to pass. Meantime, Republicans voted with near-unanimity for Ryan’s formulas.
There would inevitably be dissonance in Congress next year – even among Republicans and a Romney Administration. If push comes to shove over whether various initiatives do enough to reduce spending to satisfy the tea party – or if the GOP has to up the debt limit, no one will have more credibility in Republican ranks than Paul Ryan. If Romney stays in alignment with Ryan’s plan, the incipient president can dispatch Ryan himself to Capitol Hill to whip recalcitrant members. After all, most of them all voted for Ryan’s budget twice. Romney-Ryan wouldn’t necessarily be asking them to deviate from their track record.
Presidential contenders deploy a sophisticated schematic when selecting a running mate. Michael Dukakis picked Lloyd Bentsen for regional balance. LBJ was an experience and regional contrast to JFK. President George W. Bush went with Vice President Dick Cheney for his defense and foreign policy background. Walter Mondale and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) respectively chose Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin to shake up the race.
The nation’s problems are fiscal. Managing a tea party-driven House Republican Conference is already a challenge to Republican leaders. If Mitt Romney’s calculus is the same, he could very well tap Paul Ryan to be his running mate.