For Mitt Romney, choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate completed his evolution from centrist governor of a famously liberal state to standard-bearer of an increasingly conservative Republican Party.
On abortion, gay rights, immigration, climate change, and other issues, Romney at one time aligned himself with moderates, only to swing to the right when the politics of the moment demanded it. On one key issue, he led not only his party but the nation—bringing universal health care to Massachusetts as governor—only to downplay that singular achievement when Republicans turned against President Obama’s comparable law.
The final step in Romney’s progression came over the last year. As he struggled to overcome resistance to his second White House bid from the conservative movement, he let down his guard against Ryan’s dramatic proposal to overhaul the federal budget and curb entitlement spending.
Ironically, it was Romney’s former rival for the nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who last year invoked Ronald Reagan’s call to govern in “bold colors, not pale pastels” when he defended his criticism of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.” Romney savaged Perry’s rhetoric as too extreme and pitched himself as a steady steward of the trust fund. But now it is Romney who is embracing the GOP’s most audacious hues, partnering with the House member from Wisconsin who is determined to remake the nation’s safety net for the elderly and the poor.
Romney initially reacted to Ryan’s plan with cautious approval. He was one week away from officially launching his presidential bid but already logging miles on the campaign trail when he was asked whether he would sign Ryan’s blueprint. “That’s the kind of speculation that is getting the cart ahead of the horse,” Romney said in Iowa on May 27, 2011, according to the Associated Press.
Romney said he supported the plan’s goals but would offer his own proposal for reducing federal spending. He gave a similar response in an ABC interview hours before he kicked off his campaign in New Hampshire.
He said little over the next few months about Ryan’s sweeping plan to curb entitlement spending. Under Ryan’s controversial blueprint for Medicare, the government would encourage seniors to move away from traditional Medicare by giving them vouchers to buy private insurance. Democrats tarred that idea as “ending Medicare as we know it” in a bid to alarm elderly voters for whom the program is a lifeline.
A turning point came about one month before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses as Romney sought to dispatch his chief rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—even though they had shared concerns about preserving traditional Medicare as an option for current recipients.
“When [Ryan’s] plan came out, I applauded it as a very important step,” Romney said. “This is a place where Speaker Gingrich and I disagree.”
By late March, when Romney faced a showdown in Ryan’s home state against conservative Rick Santorum, he was wholeheartedly embracing the budget plan. Four days before the primary, Ryan returned the favor with an endorsement.