For Mitt Romney, choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate completes his evolution from centrist governor of a famously liberal state to standard bearer of an increasingly conservative Republican Party.
On abortion, gay rights, immigration and climate change and other issues, Romney at one time aligned himself with moderates, only to swing back 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 healthcare to Massachusetts as governor -- only to downplay his singular achievement when Republicans turned against President Obama’s comparable law.
(TIMELINE: The Rise of Paul Ryan)
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, 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 congressman determined to remake the nation’s safety net for the elderly and the poor.
While candidates typically lurch toward the mainstream during the general election, Romney is leaping toward the conservative wing of his party four months after he locked down the nomination. Now it is up to Romney to coax the rest of the electorate to follow his direction. Now it is up to him to lead.
“His selection of Paul Ryan is further evidence that Mitt Romney intends to run the country as a conservative,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “This pick is resonating throughout the conservative movement and will give Mitt Romney that very important momentum heading into our convention.’’
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 that he 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. “His plan is not the plan I’ll put forward, I have my own plan," Romney said on June 3, 2011. “I’ll be putting that out before I debate President Obama."
(RELATED: Ryan Pick Brings Medicare to Center Stage)
Romney 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” to set off alarms among elderly voters for whom the program is a lifeline.
A turning point came about one month before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus as Romney sought to dispatch his chief rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a rival -- even though they 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. He called this right wing social engineering. I believe it’s a very important step. To protect Medicare and protect Social Security, we’re going to have to make changes like the ones Paul Ryan proposed.”
(DECODED: Ryan Adds Promise of Youth, Energy)
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. The now-chummy pair was seemingly attached at the hip as they campaigned throughout Wisconsin together, culminating in Romney’s primary win.
President Obama quickly seized on Romney’s description of Ryan’s plan as “marvelous” and argued that it would blow up the Medicare program, setting the stage back in April for what we now know will be a central debate in the general election.
“The conservative base was concerned about Romney’s credentials, and Ryan was their wonder boy,” said Brian Sikma, who leads a Wisconsin-based conservative watchdog group. “After 2008, Republicans learned we can’t just say no to Democrats, we have to have a plan, and the guy with a plan was Paul Ryan. It became a pathway to prominence for the Republican Party and Romney kept edging toward it.”
Romney’s running mate pick now cements Ryan’s proposal as the party’s blueprint. Just six years after Democrats took over Congress by accusing Republicans of wanting to “privatize’’ Social Security, entitlement reform is at the center of the GOP’s crusade to take back the White House. What was once the “third rail’’ of politics is the Romney-Ryan ticket’s bumper sticker.