Has Obama Created A Monster?

At Ten Miles Square, Ezra Klein has a column up outlining the many ways in which the White House has helped make Paul Ryan a celebrity and the symbol of the congressional GOP–sometimes by praising Ryan, sometimes by attacking him, but always by treating him as his party’s leader.

This all makes for a helpful stroll through the familiar landscape of questions about Barack Obama’s political strategy for 2012. But I can’t say I fully agree with Ezra’s take on the post-election consequences of Ryan’s notoriety as capped by his ascendancy to the national ticket:

Putting the Ryan budget at the center of the 2012 election has the tactical benefit of forcing Republicans to defend an unpopular proposal; more important, it has the long-term strategic benefit of potentially discrediting the Ryan budget as a political document. Prior to Ryan joining the ticket, a Romney loss seemed likely to strengthen the Republican Party’s conservative wing, because the defeat would be blamed on Romney’s moderate past. Now, if the Romney-Ryan ticket loses, it will vindicate skeptics of the party’s rightward shift, potentially strengthening the party’s moderates. That could produce a more cooperative opposition for Obama to work with in a second term.

But if Obama loses, Republicans will have won the presidency with a mandate to enact a deeply conservative agenda. Left to his own devices, Romney might have been a relatively pragmatic and cautious president. Instead, the Obama administration’s three-year effort to enshrine the Ryan budget at the heart of the Republican Party would prove to have been a crucial push toward enacting that budget into law.

On Ezra’s first point, I doubt that any electoral development short of a 1964-sized Democratic landslide will “vindicate skeptics of the party’s rightward drift,” who could all pretty much meet in a phone booth at the moment. Keep in mind that said “drift”–“lurch” might be a more accurate modifier–was immediately preceded by two straight electoral shellackings for a party whose maximum leader, George W. Bush, was the unanimous candidate of movement conservatives in the 2000 cycle, and was being generally described by conservatives as a titanic Bismarckian World Historical Figure as late as 2005. Instead of deciding they’d gone too far with Bush, conservatives decided Bush hadn’t gone far enough with them. It will be far, far easier for them to blame a 2012 defeat, especially if it’s narrow, on Mitt Romney, who has never in his life commanded much love or respect from the ideologues he serially panders to and abandons. Unless Ryan himself screws up egregiously, I think the most common observation you will hear from Republicans after an electoral defeat is that the wrong guy was heading the ticket.

Ezra’s suggestion that Ryan’s presence on the ticket would turn a GOP victory into a mandate for enactment of the Ryan Budget has more merit, but frankly, Republicans don’t need a “mandate” to enact Ryan’s budget if they win the White House and control of both Houses of Congress. They’ve made it abundantly clear they will enact that budget via reconciliation immediately, and would have regardless of the identity of Romney’s running mate. As for the idea that without Ryan’s ascendancy Mitt Romney might have turned into a “pragmatic, cautious” president, Ezra himself uses the key modifier “left to his own devices.” We’ll never, ever know what Mitt would do if “left to his own devices,” because he won’t be. Party conservatives have spent the entire cycle trapping Romney into multiple pledges to do exactly what they want, to the point that he has become exactly what Grover Norquist said he’d represent: a rubber-stamp for a Republican Congress determined to enact the Ryan Budget.

If Obama indeed helped make Paul Ryan the symbolic leader of the GOP, he did little more than clarify what that party actually stood for, to the point where just putting him right there on the ticket made sense. I don’t think there’s much question the strategy boosted Obama’s re-election chances while giving Democrats a very compelling reason to rouse themselves to vote on November 6. Win or lose, the Republicans were going to keep doing what they’ve been doing; the fires of 2010 are warm enough to keep them on the current track through at least another defeat or two, particularly now that they have the internal unity to begin taking down the New Deal and Great Society the first chance they get.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.