All those political pundits who thought Mitt Romney would choose "safe" when selecting a running mate were quite mistaken.
Bold is more like it, and not just because Paul Ryan is young (42) and has never won a race larger than a congressional district.
No, this call was a capital-letters-BOLD because Mr. Romney knew he was violating the first rule of running mate selection: be safe and take no risks. A corollary to Rule One is "Have your running mate off the front page within three days of selection." With Paul Ryan, no such luck.
(Full disclosure: I am the Maryland chairman of the Romney campaign but had no role in the vice presidential selection process.)
Democratic operatives have been salivating at the prospect of a possible Ryan selection for months. You see, the ideological Mr. Ryan is perfect grist for the "Medi-scare" lobby — that group of liberal activists who specialize in scaring senior voters whenever Medicare reform is offered up by either side of the aisle. And recent history shows that such a narrative is a pretty easy sell.
This group was last seen in New York's 26th Congressional District in 2011. You might remember what happened. A "safe" Republican seat went to the Democrats on the heels of a well organized Medi-scare campaign targeting none other than Paul Ryan's proposed Medicare reforms. For the umpteenth time, a savvy — if not downright disingenuous and misleading — campaign of scare ads directed to senior citizens worked.
Politics is a front-running business, so it took no time for some GOP Monday morning quarterbacks to question the Ryan budget strategy. The complaints were familiar: Why lead with our chin? Why did we feel compelled to propose a Medicare reform when the president had never bothered to do so? Can't we come up with a strategy to counter those ruthlessly effective scare ads?
Mr. Ryan and the House leadership then did what rarely happens in modern politics: They stuck to their guns. In fact, they doubled down on their reform effort by daring the White House to offer a plan of its own. The country is still waiting. Which brings us back to what might unfold over the coming 90 days.
The Romney campaign is betting "adult time" will finally break out along the campaign trail. That witch hunts for birth certificates and tax returns will morph into a debate about how the economy can rebound from its prolonged malaise and how the federal government intends to pay back $16 trillion in debt.
The odds of generating a serious debate about spending and entitlement reform are quite long. Budget calculations are mind numbing. The policy options distasteful. And then there are those shameless attack ads so easily brought to television screens across America. After all, it's so much easier to demonize Paul Ryan than grasp concepts such as discretionary spending caps, mandatory outlays and interest payments on the national debt.
One of the great unanalyzed lessons of politics is that it is always easier to do nothing, as opposed to something. The voters tend to have stronger attitudes about something, especially when something brings about real change. And most especially when that change impacts a heretofore sacrosanct entitlement such as Medicare. On the other side is nothing. Nothing means kicking the proverbial can down the road until the next election. Pundits might complain about nothing, and it certainly polls poorly. But they don't get up in arms about it. After all, there is nothing to get excited about. Such is the advantage enjoyed by an administration that has barely given lip service to the obvious need for entitlement reform over the last four years.
A series of baseline questions present themselves: Can a sense of immediacy be generated about a topic as dry as the federal budget? Is the American middle class willing to give up favored tax preferences in the name of fiscal sanity? Will Republicans view increased revenue from a flatter tax code as a violation of their "no new taxes" pledges? Will the president feel compelled to acknowledge the need for Medicare and Social Security reforms and present his own plan?
The Ryan nomination brings all these questions to center stage. And we will find out if America has the courage and foresight to finally pick up that "can" and deal with it, traditional-campaign-rules-be-damned, on the first Tuesday of November.
The bottom line: recent history suggests this bold selection carries substantial risks. But there is one positive byproduct for the campaign: No more complaints about the calculating businessman. In poker parlance, Romney-Ryan is "all in."
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and Member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.