By the time Paul Ryan finished speaking on Wednesday night, Mitt Romney's place in the new Republican order had become clear: Win or lose, he's the placeholder for Paul Ryan until Ryan himself can run for president.
In his vice-presidential acceptance speech, Ryan accomplished two distinct tasks: He delivered the convention's first telling attack on the Obama Administration, and he seized the mantle of leader of the American conservative movement.
Ryan's Obama attacks resonated, as the other convention speeches have not, because at least some of them were partly true. To be sure, he alluded, as all Republican speakers apparently must, to Obama's supposed dismissal of small businessmen, which never happened. He conjured the specter of an all-encompassing welfare state, a hoary Republican boogeyman that bears no resemblance to Obama's actual policies. And most reprehensibly, he countered the charges that his own plan will gut Medicare with the falsehood that Obama's health care reform has already done that. It takes some chutzpah to make that claim, and to attack Obama for failing to embrace the same Simpson-Bowles report that he himself rejected. In the context of this low, dishonest convention, however, this is all garden-variety deception.
What set his speech apart was that his most impactful attacks on Obama were nuanced to the point that they were almost true. The administration, he said, has been presiding over "a housing crisis they didn't cause," but four years later, the nation still suffers from "a housing crisis they didn't correct." Hard to find fault with that. He faulted Obama for shifting his focus from the economy to health care reform after the stimulus had passed - a critique that some on the left share. He stated plainly what for Republicans is an easy truth: That the nation is still mired in a deep recession. One-in-six Americans, he said, live in poverty; half of recent college graduates can't find work commensurate with their education. And Ryan posed this year's version of Ronald Reagan's final attack on Jimmy Carter: "Without a change in leadership," Ryan asked, "why would the next four years be any different than the last four years?"
Good question. The answer is that if you changed the House leadership from John Boehner to Nancy Pelosi, and brought in a dozen or so new Democratic senators, the next four years would indeed be better than the last four, but, at least in the Senate, that's not going to happen. The standard GOP attack on Obama, that he couldn't secure any significant bipartisan legislation (a charge that Ryan was just one of many to level), is comparable to the parricides appealing for mercy because they're orphans: Republicans didn't want to meet Obama in the middle; from day one, as their Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously said, they wanted not to meet him but defeat him.
Ryan was right that the Obama campaign isn't devoting the lion's share of its resources to defending the president's record, but that's not simply because the economy is still a disaster. It's also because the Republicans kept Obama from having the kind of record he sought, and because the administration has seldom done a good job of highlighting its achievements (for instance, the tax cuts in the stimulus). It's also because fixing America's economic decline requires remedies beyond the bounds of American politics. Ryan was also right that the administration hasn't put forth many new ideas for a second term - a shortcoming we can partly attribute to its inability to get its current ideas through Congress.
Still, it was inevitable that at least one Republican would effectively highlight Obama's genuine failures, such as his failure to promote any significant remedy for the housing crisis, and Ryan has now done that. What he did not do was lay out with any specificity the Romney-Ryan plan for fixing the economy. He championed lower taxes, though he did not specify for whom, and whose services would have to be cut to offset them. He vowed to preserve Medicare, but he omitted his plan to voucherize it. It has long been a political science truism that the American people are conservatives in ideology but liberals operationally - that they oppose the government takeover of medicine but will fight to preserve Medicare. Republicans are navigating these shoals this year by defending their proposals entirely in the realm of ideology; no specifics dare cross their lips. And it was within those limits that Ryan made both his party's case for its program and his own case for the leadership of the conservative movement.
The Ryan who spoke in Tampa didn't throw down a conservative gauntlet, as once such conservative leaders as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan did. Rather, he repackaged conservative abstractions as consensual mush. At times, he deviated completely from his hard right faith. Does he really believe, as he proclaimed from the podium, that the truest measure of a society's merit is the degree to which the strong protect the weak? How could an avowed Ayn Rand acolyte believe such things?
But today's conservatism, not to mention Ryan's own, is so hard-edged it needs a triple coating of mush, lest the glint of its blade scare off potential supporters. Spooning out mush aplenty, Ryan came across as the nice young man with the nice young family, his upbeat manner, measured demeanor and appearance of thoughtfulness concealing the ideological steel within. He's exactly what the American right wants, and if conservatives have to endure Mitt Romney as the price for Ryan's leadership, that's apparently fine with them.