By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Thursday Review Editor
Some things are predictable right from the start. The current narrative on Representative Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s choice as running-mate should, therefore, come as no surprise. Lacking substance, which in today’s shallow, attention-deficit, minute-to-minute media environment means controversy or contentiousness, the press instead attacks the absence of news in the long seven day stretch since Ryan’s selection was announced.
Well, maybe we should be thankful: four years ago this week, heading into Minneapolis, Republicans and Democrats were hip deep in the Alaskan Independence Party, Bristol Palin’s pregnancy and Troopergate II. This week we are up to our eyeballs in…well…song rights and music licenses?
Sure, Ryan may be the smartest Republican in the House of Representatives—a rare politician with an encyclopedic understanding of budgets, allocations, tax rates, entitlements and incentives (and someone who can actually explain what the debt ceiling truly is)—but still, why are we shocked that for the last week he talks instead in vague, circular, empty phrases? Don’t we care about his family camping trips or his favorite pizza? Isn’t it important that we sympathize with his unrequited love of Rage Against the Machine? Of course—these are valid issues, sort of—issues on the same footing as, say, Silversun Pickup’s anger at Romney for his use of their song “Panic Switch.”
For Paul Ryan, perhaps the better musical allusion is to Pink Floyd: Welcome to the Machine.
Ryan, having passed through the looking glass, is officially inside the surreal and distortional world of running mate politics. Unlike top-tier presidential candidates who have been examined, probed, blood-tested and vetted intensely (Romney’s been running more-or-less continuously now for five years) veep choices sometime explode on the national scene in a process fraught with risk and unpredictability. And since the announcements of vice-presidential candidates often occur in the warm, sultry weeks and days leading into conventions, their selection and abrupt initiation to the circus-like media environment takes on the same intensity as a ritualistic human sacrifice. It’s dangerous, and someone always seems to set themselves on fire.
All things considered, Ryan’s been lucky. In contemporary times newly anointed running mates have—by my reckoning—about a fifty-fifty chance of making it to Election Day without going bananas or ending up drinking their food through a bendy straw. Americans and their unappointed agents in the media treat fresh veep candidates the same way the Hells Angels treated the Naked Fat Man at Altamont.
In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower selected a young, rising-star by the name of Richard Nixon as his Number Two, but scrutiny by reporters brought on questions of how Nixon’s Senate campaign money had been handled and rumors of a secret slush fund, forcing Ike to briefly consider dumping Nixon from the ticket. On the eve of the GOP convention, Nixon fought back on his own, presenting his case—with great success—through his famous Checkers speech to millions of TV viewers. Ike decided to keep the rising star on board.
Forty years ago this week the campaign of George McGovern—up to that point a movement which was the very paragon of enthusiasm, idealism and optimism—began its breathtaking descent into irrelevance and collapse when the background facts surrounding Tom Eagleton’s psychiatric treatment came under intense scrutiny by a hungry press. It was one of the most horrific shark feeding frenzies in modern times, and McGovern was soon forced to ask Eagleton to step aside. In the toxic void that followed, an increasingly desperate McGovern invited a half dozen other top Democrats to join the ticket. Sensing the beginning of a free-fall, all those courted rejected the offer until a reluctant Sargent Shriver joined the ticket. But in part as a result of the bungled and mishandled affair, the McGovern campaign never recovered.
In the complex, high stakes jousting between President Gerald Ford and GOP challenger Ronald Reagan in 1976, each side tried to dislodge the other through risky veep gambits. Ford, already under severe pressure from his right wing, announced early that he would dump the unpopular Nelson Rockefeller from the ticket in an effort to firm up support from skeptical conservatives. Reagan, still fighting Ford for every delegate going into the convention, sought to destabilize Ford’s strategy of “running out the clock” by choosing a running-mate prior to the convention. Reagan chose Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker, a moderately liberal Republican who—among other things—had opposed the Vietnam War and as a senate candidate had received the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. But Reagan’s audacious play nearly backfired: some of the most doctrinaire conservatives threatened to bolt from the Reagan column and back New York’s James Buckley instead. After defeating Reagan in a squeaker, Ford chose Bob Dole as his running mate, a move criticized by some in the press as “pandering” to the Right.
Pandering was also the general accusation hurled at candidate Walter Mondale with his 1984 choice of Geraldine Ferraro as running mate. At first seen as a historic, game-changing event sure to recapture the support northeastern and ethnic women—many of whom had defected to the GOP and to Reagan—early polls indicated that many women remained unmoved by the bold gambit. Catholic women and conservative women were generally unreceptive to Ferraro for her pro-choice stance, and there were persistent questions about the influence exerted on the Mondale campaign selection process by women’s political organizations—groups which in some cases differed sharply from the majority of female voters.
But for Ferraro the worst was yet to come, and in late July 1984 reporters began asking questions about her campaign finances, as well as the taxes and finances of her husband, businessman John Zaccaro. Ferraro at first promised to make available all their combined financial information, but Zaccaro obfuscated, resisted and finally refused, forcing Ferraro into the awkward position of withdrawing her pledge. In the process she insulted many Italian Americans with her comments about the pride and stubbornness of Italians and the uniqueness of “being married to Italian men.” In the growing brouhaha, Mondale was forced to briefly consider dumping her from the ticket. As the inquiries into her family finances grew more intense and complex, other reporters began looking into the allegations (never proved) that John Zaccaro had business connections to organized crime. When Ferraro and Zaccaro’s net worth was finally revealed to be $4 million—along with documents showing unpaid back taxes—the Republicans savaged her for being a wealthy, tax-evading hypocrite. The Mondale campaign, heavily distracted by the intense scrutiny, never regained its momentum.
Then, in another famous veep misfire, presidential candidate George Herbert Walker Bush—after a long and careful search in 1988—chose Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate. Quayle was handsome, reliably conservative and from an important swing state to boot. But there were problems. Only lightly vetted, Quayle quickly proved unprepared for the intense scrutiny and formidable pressure. Of immediate interest to reporters was Quayle’s non-strenuous military service in the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam era, a soft path possibly engineered by his father; and rumors surrounding a possible affair between Quayle and a young woman named Paula Parkinson. Quayle also solidified his reputation as being cagey and evasive, as well as sometimes visibly uncertain about his responses to reporters. This chummed the waters for the sharks, and the frenzied hubbub around the young Senator very nearly overshadowed the Bush candidacy. Though issues surrounding Quayle ultimately did no lasting damage to Bush’s path to victory over Michael Dukakis, Quayle’s reputation never fully recovered.
Other veep choices were fraught with controversy and contentiousness, including Ross Perot’s 1992 choice of James Stockdale, Bob Dole’s 1996 choice of Jack Kemp, and Al Gore’s choice of Joe Lieberman (see: The Power to Reward Versus the Power to Punish, August 5, 2012). In 2004 John Kerry’s selection of John Edwards made sense geographically, but it was an awkward and unhappy marriage from the very start, did little to attract moderate Democrats or independent voters, and remains a point of bitterness with some Democrats even to this day.
Then, in 2008, in possibly the most infamous running mate misfire of all time, a sloppy and incomplete vet matched up John McCain with Alaska’s Sarah Palin, with nearly disastrous results. Within hours of her selection, reporters began asking difficult questions about Palin’s voting record as governor, her personal life and the awkward facts of her thin resume. The McCain team was unprepared for the ferocity of the inquisition. A circus-like environment soon enclosed Palin and much of the McCain campaign as reporters investigated every aspect of the Palin family. Though Palin was a huge hit with conservatives—many of whom later morphed into the Tea Party movement—she quickly demonstrated an inability to comprehend the meaning of many of the policy questions directed her way. From the Federal Reserve to foreign policy, Palin was clearly—at that time—unprepared to ascend to the presidency.
Ryan arrives with none of this baggage. After a week, he still appears to be a solid, reliable choice for Romney—no surprises, no skeletons and no personal issue hand-grenades—though there are plenty of folks on both sides of the political aisle who complain anyway. Reflexively, perhaps, party traditionalists in the GOP seem bent on viewing Ryan as a poor choice—a nod toward nerds and policy wonks rather than the selection of a meat-and-potato guy like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie. Democrats and the Obama team will attack him for his positions on everything from Social Security to welfare to taxation, and the negative ads are sure to follow soon.
Now step through the looking glass the other way: despite Ryan’s policy expertise and encyclopedic understanding of budgets and revenue and tax rates (Ryan may be as knowledgeable on policy detail as any one elected person since Robert Taft), Romney and his handlers want Ryan to keep the conversation on job creation…and little else. It’s a little like the NFL team which drafts the best passing quarterback in all of college football, only to force him to comply with the coach’s vision of a running game.
Nevertheless, Democratic strategists seemed, for that first week at least, unable or unwilling to attack Ryan on anything specific beyond his well-documented fiscal conservatism, which they will no doubt attempt to recast as insensitivity to the poor and the underprivileged—a standard liberal tack under these circumstances, and a well-worn path leading from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. Attempts to flush him out on the subject have failed largely because of Romney’s chronic allergies to controversy, and that means that Ryan must abide by the dictum keep the chat lite.
So—at least between now and the start of the convention in Tampa next week—we can expect lots of attention to be paid to Paul Ryan’s favorite tunes and to the soundtrack music at political events.