The One-Sided “Battle of Ideas”

It’s clear one reason Bill Clinton’s speech in Charlotte is getting so much attention is that it represented the kind of policy-rich argument we so notably did not hear in Tampa. The interesting thing, though, that did not get enough attention during the GOP Convention, is that the brain-dead “don’t think of anything other than deciding whether you’re better off” messaging is the opposite of what many in both parties expected when Paul Ryan was placed on the ticket. Daniel Larison captures this irony particularly well at The American Conservative today:

Another reason the speech was so devastating to them was that he gave the sort of speech that Ryanmaniacs might have once imagined that Ryan would deliver and the sort that some Romney supporters still imagine Romney is capable of giving. Romney-Ryan was supposed to be the presidential ticket of the “data-driven” manager and his budget wonk sidekick, and between the absence of any significant policy discussion last week and what happened tonight that has lost all credibility. Clinton outperformed both of them in terms of discussing policy details, and underscored just how meaningless the “campaign of ideas” phrase has been. Ryan fans had been convinced for over a year that the election had to be a contest over “big ideas,” and when it came time to engage in that contest their party leaders didn’t even try.

Larison’s analysis strengthens my growing belief that in choosing Ryan as a running-mate, Romney had zero intention of making a robust defense of the Ryan Budget or pursuing anything else the conservative movement was panting for him to say or do (other than the racially-tinged demagoguery about welfare). It was precisely the opposite: he figured he could shut up the noisy ideologues by offering them the symbolic prize of Ryan and then running his campaign in exactly the non-substantive way he always intended. This end-the-primaries strategy, as I’ve called it earlier, depended, of course, on swing-voter ignorance about Ryan and indeed the entire GOP agenda, and on Democratic complicity in a campaign about pre-set cartoon caricatures rather than anything that might look like an “idea.” As Larison observes, Clinton has sort of blown that all up. And unfortunately for Mitt, conservatives will likely again become restive, and demand that he and their hero from Wisconsin respond–with specific policy proposals that will become less popular the more they are aired.

If Clinton’s sprung a trap, it’s one the Romney campaign worked hard to set.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.