March 20, 2012: The day the GOP united its purity (Ryan) and its pragmatism (Romney)

by Ryan Streeter on March 21, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Let March 20, 2012 stand as a reminder that Republicans in America are a party of both principle and pragmatism.

By some strange alignment of forces in the universe, Paul Ryan rolled out his budget on the same day that Romney basically wrapped up the nomination by pulling out a lead after Illinois that his opponents likely won’t close.

Paul Ryan’s budget is the GOP at its best and purest. Ryan has been the face of the GOP ever since he delivered the party’s response to Obama’s State of the Union address in 2011, subsequently shaped the 2012 race and budget debate in Washington with his budget from a year ago, and forced Obama to speak more directly about the deficit than he wanted to. Paul Ryan embodies all that Republicans hope for in a public leader.

Romney has failed again and again to inspire, and yet he keeps winning. Call it the weakness of the field or whatever, but Republicans are making their peace with him as the best candidate to beat Obama. He’s flawed, dissatisfying, provides great copy for opponents political ads, and elicits a lot of eye-rolling – but, voters are saying, he’ll do.

So March 20 showed us something about the GOP. It’s principled, but not controlled by the right-wing idealistic fringe that many in the media seem to believe. It’s pragmatic, yet high-minded and visionary. It’s probably making history in ways we’ll discover later.

That Ryan and Romney are at the forefront of the party right now is interesting. They are quite different. Consider these three points:

Ryan embodies the party of ideas. Romney will manage whatever idea you tell him to manage. From his first cut at entitlement reform and deficit reduction in 2008 when he had fewer than a dozen cosponsors to today, when he literally redefined the GOP’s domestic agenda almost single-handedly, Paul Ryan has had a wonkish attachment to the big ideas. He has taken on the biggest long-term threat to our fiscal and economic health – Medicare – and been bold. He was bold on tax reform before others were. He’s grasped ahold of the third rail of politics with a kind of disarming equipoise. Romney, on the other hand, has never seemed all that interested in big ideas. His foray into health care in Massachusetts seemed more like a big McKinsey reengineering project. His 59 point economic plan underwhelmed everyone. He hemmed and hawed about entitlement reform. This is definitely not a big ideas guy.

But, as others have noted, Romney will probably just have to do. Why? Because so long as others are forcing the big ideas onto his plate, he’ll ultimately swallow them. And probably execute the heck out of them, Six Sigma them, maximize outsized returns from them – however you want to put it.

Ryan appeals to the moral imagination. Romney appeals to the amoral imagination. The best conservative minds, as Russell Kirk wrote so many years ago make a healthy use of the moral imagination. We are at heart moral beings. Ryan understands this and has turned the dry art of budgeting into a mission marked by moral urgency. He frequently speaks of the moral nature of our deficit crisis. We have to change our habits and expectations. The government cannot keep shouldering the young with the lack of discipline among the old. And so on. Romney, on the other hand, is the quintessential amoral executive. His strongest moral testament is his family and his background of service in the Mormon church. But on the public stage, he seems congenitally incapable of stirring the moral imagination. The first time he quotes MLK or tries to pull a line out of George Santayana, people will just laugh.

Republican voters seem to have exhaled, shrugged their shoulders, and resolved to basically get behind a guy they know won’t stir their hearts or convince them that he is truly a man of the public. For that, they’ll look to Ryan and others like him.

Ryan is a straight arrow. Romney has zigged and zagged. This is really just a way of summing up the first two points. With Ryan, you’ve always known what you get. He’s never veered off course. His ideas have been consistent. They’ve always been conservative. He stays above the petty. He’s impatient with small ball stuff and keeps the conversation focused on the important stuff. Romney, as is well-known, has shifted around. He’s been inconsistent. He veers. He hasn’t seemed to care as much about conservatism as electability.

Having said all that, there are two things these two guys do have in common: First, they both seem respectable to moderates, if for different reasons, and second, they both seem to mainly succeed at what they set their minds to. Those are good things.

  • Guest

    “With Ryan, you’ve always known what you get. He’s never veered off course.”

    Granting the bigger picture, didn’t Ryan vote for Medicare Part D? Let’s posit for the sake of argument that it was a worthwhile objective. It still represents an expansion of entitlement programs – and specifically of the Medicare program that is the chief contributor to our looming fiscal crisis – at a time when responsible policymakers knew that Medicare was totally unsustainable.

    I’m pretty supportive of his plan, but let’s not overstate that is Mr. Consistent.