If Mitt Romney goes down to defeat, there’s supposed to be a silver lining for Paul Ryan – namely, that he’ll immediately become one of the front-runners – if not THE front-runner – for the Republican Party’s next presidential nomination, in 2016.
After all, Ryan is a rock star on the right. Ask a conservative to diagnose what’s wrong with the Romney campaign and you’ll hear variations of the same refrain over and over: Let Ryan be Ryan!
Granted, it’s no mystery why Romney isn’t heeding these calls. Ryan’s policy ideas may be gospel on the right, but when it comes to general election voters, they’re…problematic. So Ryan has been muzzled, forced to play a role he really wasn’t cut out for: generic vice presidential nominee.
This absolutely could redound to Ryan’s benefit after the election. Right now, conservatives are itching to see and hear more of him, so if Romney does lose, Ryan can just say to them: Hey guys, I was trying to be a team player, but I was as frustrated as you! Next time, let’s go out there, you and me, and run the kind of campaign WE want to run! And a 2016 heavyweight will thus be born.
But there’s another possibility too – that Ryan will emerge from the 2012 election ruing the day Romney put him on the ticket. If you want to know why, you just need to know the story of Ryan’s political mentor, and what happened to him when he ran for vice-president.
That would be Jack Kemp, who in his prime was every bit the conservative hero Ryan is today. Kemp was out of the game in the summer of 1996, but he was thrilled to get back into it when Bob Dole offered him the Number 2 slot. Like Romney with Ryan, Dole picked Kemp because he thought it would be a bold move that fire up the GOP base.
And at first it did, but by the fall, the Dole-Kemp ticket was running hopelessly behind Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Conservatives grew frustrated and decided the race would be closer if only their candidates would go after Clinton on “character” issues. Remember those? Dole wouldn’t do it, though, and when he delivered a flat performance in the first debate, the right turned up the heat on Kemp – suddenly it was on him to say what they all believed about the president. And in the first question of the VP debate, Kemp got his chance to deliver..
It was a mature and laudable response. It was also the EXACT OPPOSITE of what conservatives wanted and demanded. They were irate. Kemp had betrayed them. And that was the end of whatever thoughts Kemp had of emerging from the ’96 race as a 2000 contender.
I can see a similar moment on the horizon for Ryan. Conservatives are already upset, and their frustration will only be worse if Romney doesn’t sell their message when he debates Obama. If Ryan the follows the same script in his debate, they just might decide that he’s part of the