JANESVILLE, Wis. -- Mitt Romney has made his first presidential-level decision, picking Paul Ryan, the 42-year-old, seven-term Congressman from southern Wisconsin, as his running mate. The choice offers the first real hints about what kind of president Romney would be. Here's what we learned: He takes risks, he can adapt and he's willing to campaign on a bold set of ideas rather than generalities.
If you're looking for the attributes of presidential leadership, these are all strong qualities. The Ryan pick also tells us less flattering things about Romney: He's willing to discard what were once deeply held views about the necessity of business and executive experience and to cosset the GOP base for political reasons at the expense of independents.
Thanks to the endless coverage this campaign of gaffes and out-of-context quotes, it had seemed like we were going to have a donut election: fluffy, sugary and with nothing in the middle. The stakes for voters have always been high, but the way the campaign has played out has not matched the claims by both candidates that this is the most important election of a generation.
Romney has had plans he could point to, but he wasn't really running on them. Now he's put a greater emphasis on those plans. They are no longer in the background, which means this election will be a clearer choice for voters. It will touch on the central question of how you refashion government in a time of scarcity and when a majority of the public is scared, thinking the country is headed in the wrong direction.
The Ryan pick is thrilling. That's a first for Romney's campaign. Throughout the primaries, a segment of conservatives were lukewarm about him. Since then, in countless interviews with activists, strategists and voters, it has been clear that Republicans are voting more against Obama than for Mitt Romney. Now conservatives have something to vote for. Paul Ryan is a revered figure in conservative circles. He is a conservative evangelist for the free market and lower taxes, and he doesn't apologize. Ryan, along with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walter, is loud and proud -- willing to be specific and controversial despite the political heat.
Mitt Romney has never been considered in the same mold. Over the last few months, there has been an influential chorus of Republicans -- joined by Walker -- calling for Romney not only to get specific about conservative solutions but to campaign on them. To run merely as the anti-Obama alternative was not enough, argued people like Ryan-backer Bill Kristol. Romney had to present a set of alternative ideas and champion them. Others, like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, argued that only by campaigning with brio could Romney win a mandate for governing.
By picking Ryan, Romney has staked his campaign on fundamentally restructuring the government and its relationship to the people who fund it. Ryan has called for the privatization of Social Security and transforming Medicare from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. The seven-term congressman has pushed these ideas for years, pointing to his continued success in a contested state and in a district that Barack Obama won in 2008 as proof that conservatives could be true to their beliefs and survive politically.
As a conservative ideas man, Ryan is well ahead of most others in his party not just in his level of specificity but in his willingness to stand behind his ideas. But in 2010, Republican leaders didn't embrace Ryan's "roadmap," knowing that it would be too controversial, particularly the change to Medicare. House Republicans were running against Democrats by arguing that Democrats were destroying Medicare, something that would have been hard to do while also championing the Ryan plan, which would have opened them to the same charge. Those ideas are now so central to the party's chances of winning back the White House that they have won Ryan a spot on the ticket.
Ryan is loved by conservatives, but he makes moderate Republicans nervous. "We've switched the campaign from being about jobs and Obama's bad record to one about Paul Ryan's Medicare plans," said one Republican strategist, echoing the sentiment of several I interviewed. The Romney team argues that swing state independent voters will see the new policy focus as a road out of their current economic woes. Some Republican strategists think it's a gift to the Obama campaign.
That's because one of the Obama teams' goals has long been to tie Romney to Ryan and his budget proposals. They also wanted this election to be a choice, not a referendum on Obama. When both the campaign and the challenger have the same goals it suggests that one of them really has it very wrong.
Ryan is not a complement to Mitt Romney. He's an injection of energy, like Sarah Palin was for John McCain or Jack Kemp was for Bob Dole. He is telegenic and enjoys sparring with those who doubt him, which are important skills. He's also a possible ambassador to middle class and Rust Belt voters in the way that Joe Biden has been for president Obama. That might put a state like Wisconsin, which was trending toward Obama, back in play.
When Mitt Romney talked about his vice presidential pick before it was announced, he said, in an interview with NBC, that he wanted a candidate who had "a vision for the country that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country." Sounds good, but the president is the one who is supposed to have the vision. In this case though, the No. 2 has the vision and instincts that Romney doesn't. It's why so many wanted Ryan to run for president.
To be fair, Romney is certainly capable of articulating a vision. That's what he did with his health care plan in Massachusetts. But he is reluctant to boast about those achievements.
Perhaps Romney can take a vision graft from Ryan. He'll have to, because voters won't be lured by Ryan's ideas unless the man at the top of the ticket makes the case for them.
Romney will now test the proposition at the heart of all of the good advice he was getting from conservatives: Whether specificity kills or whether the country is really hungering for a detailed plan. Until this point, Romney has been almost allergic to specifics. Now he will have to give nuanced, precise and powerful answers. He's going to have to flip a switch, which might not be that easy given how hyper-careful he has been to this point. His aides have long said that Romney loves policy details.
He'll get a chance to prove it now.
Writer John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent. He wrote this for slate.com.