Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Paul Ryan: From 'It boy' to calamity

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
August 16, 2012 -- Updated 2100 GMT (0500 HKT)
Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan addresses a campaign event this week in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan addresses a campaign event this week in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Pundits whipsaw on Paul Ryan -- first he's game changer, then liability
  • He says VP picks matter; historically VPs influential, sometimes become president
  • He says Ryan pick could spur needed debate, clarify choice in election
  • Rothkopf: Substantive debate great but must be followed by cooperation on action

Editor's note: David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy Magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(CNN) -- The American people should sue Washington's chattering class for whiplash. Just a few days ago, when Paul Ryan was selected by Mitt Romney to be his running mate, there was a burst of media euphoria. The nomination was a game changer. Ryan was an ideas guy. He would elevate what to date had been a lackluster campaign. He had killer abs.

But within 48 hours, the so-called "narrative" had changed. The narrative is not actual facts. It is how those facts look after they've been run through the political spin cycle. Thanks to modern technology, the whole process of spinning narratives that once took weeks, now happens in the blinking of an eye. Twitter, in its manic frenzy, hopped up on bite-size bits of emotion-filled social interaction, condenses months into hours, news cycles into moments, but without any of the perspective that time or thought brings.

Within a few ticks of the clock of Ryan bounding down the gangplank of the USS Wisconsin, he went from "It boy" to calamity. Comments about his hair and his missing necktie were so rapidly and extensively commented upon that they had become clichés before they could be written about in the next morning's paper. Saturday, he was a bold stroke. By Tuesday, Ryan was a potential liability. Old people were sure to hate him. And once an America that's a bit on the chubby side took note of his 6% body fat, he would be a goner.

Ryan Rages Against the Machine

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

What had promised to be the beginning of a long overdue debate about "big ideas" was now seen, often by the same commentators who were upbeat days earlier, as a trigger for more hopelessly divisive bickering.

Meanwhile, seemingly cooler heads sniffed that this wasn't much of a story in the first place. After all, this was all about a vice presidential nomination. John Nance Garner's quip about the vice presidency not being worth "a bucket of warm spit" was dusted off as it is every four years, this time with a little more seeming relevance since Garner was, back in 1932, the last sitting House member to "ascend" to veepdom. Ezra Klein, writing for The Washington Post, suggested it was likely the pick didn't "much matter at all," asserting "that's usually what happens with vice presidential picks."

So, let's take a step back now that we have the Olympian perspective half a week offers. Does the pick matter? Could it? How?

Ex-Obama adviser on Ryan, economy
Ryan plan to introduce Medicare vouchers
What is Romney's economic plan?
Biden: Nothing gutsy about Romney plans

First, the conventional wisdom that vice presidential picks don't matter is just wrong. For more than half a century, vice presidents and vice presidential nominees have had a huge impact. Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon, became president. John F. Kennedy's vice president, Lyndon Johnson, became president. One of Nixon's vice presidents, Spiro Agnew, was at the center of a scandal. His next one, Gerald Ford, became president.

Jimmy Carter elevated the vice presidency into a real position of policy-partnership, giving Walter Mondale an unprecedented role, which led him to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984. Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, became president. Bill Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, was a true policy partner, won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election and later picked up a Nobel Prize.

George W. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, was the most powerful vice president in history. Joe Biden is both a policy partner and, as his "back in chains" gaffe showed, he is still a headline grabber. And even losing nominees for the office, from Lloyd Bentsen to Jack Kemp to Joe Lieberman to John Edwards and Sarah Palin, have had a lasting impact.

Ghitis: Will Romney take the U.S. to war?

Thus, even if Ryan were not one of the leaders of perhaps the single most influential new political movement in America in the past decade, the tea party-aligned deficit hawks of "the New Right," he, as a vice presidential pick, would immediately vault to the forefront of U.S. politics.

Already his budget plan is one of the defining documents of that movement, and thrust him to the forefront of it. Naturally, this makes him a lightning rod for criticism from Democrats -- even though in the past, Democratic budget experts such as Ron Wyden and Erskine Bowles praised his command of the numbers -- but could also be the trigger for a debate that Democrats, if they believe in their principles, should welcome.

Demagoguery is the temptation for both camps and seems preferred by most of their hired guns and super PAC supporters. But they don't have to rule the day. A top Democratic donor friend of mine, former Loral Space & Communications chief executive Bernard Schwartz, sees an alternative approach. "I see an opportunity," he told me, "for the two candidates to present their adversarial cases as best they know how on the basis of principles rather than irrelevancies like how many years of tax disclosure has been made."

He went on to add, "Let's view this selection of Ryan as the beginning of the development of a true Republican national viewpoint and let's view it as a challenge to President Obama to stop going after Romney personally and to speak to the core issues. Both sides have to have the courage to own their ideas, defend them and make the case for the sacrifices any serious approach will entail. This could help elevate that and the debate and give the American people the kind of true choice they deserve right now."'

Encouragingly, this is a view echoed in the comments of thought leaders in the Republican Party such as commentators David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer or Bill Bennett. That's significant because as important as the vice presidential pick actually is, the greater vices with which we must contend in contemporary politics are the tendency to demonize our opponents and to chase after the rapidly moving but ephemeral targets set by the social-networking shouting match.

Paul Ryan's Gen X sensibilities an asset

This is not just dangerous because it's vapid, alienates voters and sheds no light on anything. It's dangerous because sometimes in their zeal for the spotlight or their love of scorched earth politics, candidates, campaign advisers and partisan commentators forget that both sides in this contest are us.

In the end, as appealing as substantive debate is, it's not enough. Because debate that is not followed by the cooperation required for action is wasted. That is why we must hope that both sides see the possibilities for turning this vice presidential pick, like him or not, into a catalyst for the change in the character of our politics that our times require.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT