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Referendum Becomes Choice

August 11, 2012

Mitt Romney is perhaps the most cautious presidential nominee in recent memory. He has built his campaign around the fundamental assumption that voters will cast their ballots as a referendum on President Obama's four years in office, rather than as a choice between two candidates. That's meant fewer major policy addresses, fewer policy proposals and fewer specifics -- anything to avoid giving Obama a target to attack.

That's why his decision to tap Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate is so surprising. It represents such a dramatic change from the way Romney's team has viewed the race so far, a moment at which they are embracing the idea that what drives voters will be a choice, rather than a referendum.

Republicans have spent the last several years standing in unison against Obama's policies, but Ryan has been at the forefront of a small but influential segment of the party that has insisted on offering an alternative -- that is, offering a choice.

"People like me who are reform-minded ignore the people who say, 'Just criticize and don't do anything and let's win by default. That's ridiculous," Ryan told The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, in a profile published last week. "They don't want to produce alternatives? That's not going to stop me from producing an alternative."

But Ryan's detractors had a point: The alternative budget plan he proposed became a lightening rod, the only thing Democrats could hold up as an example of the GOP's proposals. Democratic strategists have used Republican support for the Ryan budget as a cudgel to beat down-ballot candidates; the party credits that argument with wins in at least two House special elections this cycle, in New York and Arizona.

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