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
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT