The traditional roles of a U.S. presidential running mate are ticket balancer and attack dog. With their choices of Al Gore and Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush added another: the brainy policy partner with big-picture views.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is following that model in picking Paul Ryan. Ryan fires up the party's base, but he's also a policy wonk who could actually help a victorious candidate govern.
As a candidate, the telegenic, articulate Ryan could play another much-needed role. He could be a great communicator, educating the public about policy challenges and Republican plans to address them.
Here I'm thinking not of Ronald Reagan but of a quirkier candidate. Two decades ago, Ross Perot riveted the public with his half-hour prime-time lectures on the dangers of the budget deficit. People still remember his hand-held charts.
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The Perot commercials treated the voters as intelligent citizens hungry for knowledge and willing to sit still long enough to absorb it. Perot didn't offer especially cogent ideas for dealing with the deficit — his main prescription was to get the “best experts” in the room and have them come up with a plan — but he effectively focused attention on the issues, particularly the federal budget. His commercials capped a campaign year in which voters, anxious about recession and restructuring, were unusually engaged with economic policy. (Clinton's economic plan — summarized in the manifesto “Putting People First” — became, like Perot's, a best- seller.)
We're in another anxious period, and voters are again primed to consider serious policy talk. To play up its team's strengths as numbers guys, countering the self-congratulatory idea of Democrats as the party of intellect, the Romney campaign could make a gutsy move. It could deploy Ryan to talk to the public at length about the looming fiscal crisis, producing a series of long-form, Perot-style videos. Nowadays the Republicans wouldn't even need to spend money for prime-time television (although that would certainly get attention). They could rely on YouTube.
One video could lay out the problems; another could explain the plan (which presumes the Romney campaign settles on one); another could address objections or answer questions sent in by viewers. One video might invite Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, or Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin, to explain their bipartisan budget plans, drawing contrasts among the different approaches and identifying common ground. For the finale of each video, or of the series, Romney could join his running mate, giving a top- of-the-ticket endorsement while maintaining his own thematic concentration on jobs.
Whatever the exact content, the point would be to focus on policy in more detail than the usual vague talking points, countering President Obama on substance and challenging him to respond with equal specificity. But Obama wouldn't be the main focus. The message would be what a Romney-Ryan administration would seek to do and why. A political plus would be positioning the candidates as smart, confident statesmen who respect viewers' intelligence — and who offer a cool-headed respite from relentlessly negative, highly emotional politics.
Producing such videos would be tactically risky, of course, because they would undoubtedly contain sentences that could turn up in negative ads. And laying out a real plan would entail strategic risk as well, because some voters would be turned off even if they knew the full context. Using the vice-presidential candidate as the spokesman, however, would lessen the risk.
The ideal result would be an equally substantive, long-form response from the Obama campaign (and, for further contrast, the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson and others who believe Ryan's budget-cutting ideas don't go far enough). Although Vice President Joe Biden is an unlikely fiscal spokesman, the Democrats have options, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Alan Krueger, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad or, if they're feeling daring, Bill Clinton, whose latest best-seller is on economic policy.
The real risk isn't opponents' negative ads. It's that no one would pay attention. After all, the conventional wisdom is that voters no longer have the attention span needed to absorb half-hour disquisitions on fiscal policy, however well produced. We live in a world where blog posts get shortened for Twitter, and tweets become Facebook memes. Politics now seems to be all about attitude and identity, not policy ideas.
So what explains Ron Paul?
In fact, despite the technological changes, the conventional wisdom wasn't all that different in 1992. Pundits were shocked when Perot's homespun commercials started pulling bigger audiences than network sitcoms. It turns out that when people confront serious problems, whether a cancer diagnosis, an autistic child or a depressed economy, they suddenly become willing to seek out and absorb lots of information.
The American public is in the appropriately desperate frame of mind for a serious policy discussion. The Ryan pick suggests that Romney might be willing to offer one. The alternative is three more months of sniping about tax returns and college transcripts (not to mention how dogs are treated) — attacks on the candidates' identities rather than their ideas. The times demand better.
Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies” and “The Substance of Style,” and is writing a book on glamour.