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
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT