Updated August 14 at 12:42 p.m.
Having heard the night before that Mitt Romney was going to announce his running mate Saturday morning in Norfolk, Va., I woke up very early to catch the latest punditry and find out who had been chosen. I quickly learned that Mitt Romney’s choice was Paul Ryan, the representative from the 1st District of Wisconsin.
I then strolled into my living room where my grandmother had been reading the morning paper. Knowing that I was on top of all the political news, she immediately asked me a question that I believe best demonstrates the riskiness of Romney’s choice: “What is this about Romney’s VP ‘pick’ hurting an old lady in a wheelchair?”
And there you have it. It took only minutes following the news of Romney’s choice before she already had an opinion on him, and it wasn’t positive. Whether my grandmother really thought Representative Ryan had pushed a senior off a cliff is an interesting possibility that makes me laugh inside. But the real moral of this story is this: initial messaging by the campaigns will have a significant effect on how people view Romney’s running mate.
So let’s start with the premise that my grandmother is the typical senior citizen in the United States. She is a recipient of Social Security and Medicare payments. She doesn’t know much about Paul Ryan. And, unlike political junkies like me, she is not following the race for president all that well. She is far from being alone in this camp.
In fact, according to a CNN/ORC International poll conducted on August 7th and 8th, 54 percent of Americans said that they didn’t know enough about Paul Ryan to form an opinion, as was the case with other expected VP choices. Therefore, Americans will learn everything that they need to know and then some about Paul Ryan–the good, the bad, and the ugly–from the media and from ads that will be run by campaigns and super PACs. That is not necessarily welcome news for Ryan or the Romney campaign. Here’s why.
From a Referendum on the President to a Referendum on the Ryan Budget
When one thinks of Representative Ryan, what most likely comes to mind is the Ryan budget and other similar Ryan budget proposals in the House. Americans may remember the Ryan plan in particular from Democratic political ads in 2010, like the one where a Ryan look-alike pushes an old lady in a wheelchair off a cliff. The potential problem for Romney’s campaign going forward is that the Ryan plan and other legislation that he has co-sponsored touch the “third rail” of American politics, Medicare and Social Security.
Just look at this excerpt from an email sent out to supporters by Jim Messina, President Obama’s campaign manager, soon after the Ryan announcement. He said, “Congressman Paul Ryan is best known as the author of a budget so radical The New York Times called it ‘the most extreme budget plan passed by a House of Congress in modern times.’”
So even though Ryan’s conservative counterparts marvel at his boldness, descriptions of his proposed changes in Medicare and Social Security as “radical” and “extreme” are hardly the messages that the Romney campaign wants seniors to hear. And the reason is simple. These programs are lifelines for many seniors, a way of life in retirement. After all, the median senior citizen doesn’t make all that much money. The median income for women 65 and over was less than $15,000 in 2008. The median income for men in the same age bracket was only about $25,500.
Hence, Romney may have changed this election from a referendum on President Obama to a referendum on what is now the Romney/Ryan plan to reform entitlements. Over the next few weeks, Republicans will have to make senior citizens more comfortable with Paul Ryan and assure them that their benefits are safe. Threaten their benefits, and potentially pay the political price from one of the largest voting blocs in American elections.
And Then There Is Medicaid
It is obvious that Paul Ryan will be slammed by Democrats for few other reasons than the fact that he has consistently proposed great changes to Medicare and Social Security. But there may be a third, slightly less significant issue at hand. The Ryan plan also proposes great reductions in Medicaid.
The Ryan plan took one of its greatest hits this April when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took aim at the plan because of its impact on the poor. After Paul Ryan claimed that Catholic social teaching inspired his budget, Catholic bishops sent a flurry of letters to the congressman’s office and stated that the Ryan plan “fails to meet” certain “moral criteria.”
And so the war begins. You can now tack on a threat to the poorest Americans, many of whom will become new recipients of Medicaid under Obamacare, to the alleged threat to seniors and the middle class. Did I mention that messaging is everything?
Messaging Means Everything
The Romney campaign had a great day Saturday following the announcement, and his bold choice will undoubtedly energize the Republican base heading into the convention and the election in November. However, the pundits aren’t calling this choice risky for nothing. Paul Ryan’s presence on the ticket definitely has its positives, but it could hurt Romney in the long run if cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security headline the discussion between now and November.
Hence the conclusion, it all comes down to messaging. Democrats will soon revive the political attacks of the 2010 election cycle, and they could be damaging if they win the hearts and minds of seniors across America. In return, Republicans will run ads to define Romney and Ryan, while attacking the president for failed policies and a lack of leadership on key issues like the budget.
Democrats may have the advantage because the Ryan plan is so controversial, but we mustn’t forget that Romney and the Republicans have out-raised Obama and the Democrats over the last few months. Republican super PACs also have a huge financial advantage over their Democratic counterparts. Neither of these realities is likely to change, especially after the addition of Ryan to the ticket.
Overall, the winner of this messaging war will likely win the election. And while we may know by the time the conventions roll around whether a Romney/Ryan ticket is good strategy, Ryan’s true effect on the race may not truly be known until November.
Photo Credit: USA Today