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.