Paul Ryan gave his much-anticipated speech at the Republican National Convention last night. After a somewhat hesitant start, Ryan successfully introduced himself to the American public and gave a speech that suggests that he will be an effective running mate.
My first reaction to Ryan was: he looks like a Boy Scout. Squint at him long enough, and you won’t see a guy in a suit but a Scout in a crisp uniform and tie, displaying merit badges galore. Ryan has retained not only boyish looks but also boyish mannerisms, looking at you sheepishly from under his eyebrows, with his head tilted forward and a lopsided grin. It’s as if he were apologizing to you for taking a short cut of his own devising when he ties a perfect slip knot.
Ryan’s earnest, “aw shucks” demeanor should go a long way to combating the effort to portray him as an evil, mean-spirited shill for the super-rich who will happily throw senior citizens to the wolves as part of the bargain. He got choked up when he talked about his Mom getting beyond the loss of his father at an early age and how she was his role model. And when he spoke of teaming up with his Mom to respectfully and tenderly care for an elderly relative with dementia, I believed him. He seems like the Scout who will help granny across the street, not steal her Medicare check and shove her off the cliff.
This doesn’t mean that Ryan is right on policy — it just means that it probably will be hard for the Democrats to demonize or marginalize him. His speech last night showed that he could well be an effective advocate for the Republican approach and critic of the President’s record. He’s obviously knowledgeable about economic and budget issues and comfortable with math, and he displayed a knack for framing the issues in a way that brings them home. His remark about recent college graduates being forced to live in their parents’ homes, peering up at faded 2008 Obama posters, rather than getting on with their lives, probably resonated with some of those recent graduates (not to mention their parents). And his willingness to poke gentle fun at Mitt Romney’s elevator-music tastes was refreshing and, again, consistent with that Boy Scout persona.
We shouldn’t get too excited about vice presidential candidates. They shouldn’t be the focus — and when they are, as was the case in 2008 with the last GOP vice presidential candidate, it’s usually not a good thing. But if the phony caricatures aren’t plausible, vice presidential candidates can help to frame the the substantive debate. If he can successfully dodge claims that he’s Mephistopheles in disguise, Paul Ryan may be able to actually address some of the important issues in this election on their merits and allow us to judge for ourselves. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing development?