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
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT