Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has been viewed as the Republicans’ most in-your-face salesman, whipping up crowds with a hard sell. Representative Paul Ryan, the party’s vice-presidential candidate, is supposed to be the earnest, non-flashy policy wonk.
Yet this dichotomy of substance versus style misses the point: Ryan is the most relentless salesman in the Republican Party. A ubiquitous presence on television, he has an easy smile, an ingratiating manner and a relentlessly upbeat air. Compared with his no-compromise colleagues, he acts less like a drill sergeant and more like a devoted student of Dale Carnegie.
This is a shrewd choice on Ryan’s part, but it may also reflect what he is selling. Say what you will about the wisdom of changing the fundamental guarantees of entitlements or making dramatic cuts to social programs -- these aren’t the type of goods that sell themselves.
Ryan first came to prominence after the 2004 election when he promoted an ambitious plan to privatize Social Security. It was regarded as too radical by George W. Bush’s administration, which pushed a more modest plan that proved such a dud that the president later regretted making it a priority.
In 2007, Ryan’s first budget proposal enjoyed a similar reception. The cuts he proposed were considered so aggressive that 40 members of his own party voted against it. A year later, he introduced a revised proposal. It fared little better. Only eight co-sponsors signed on.
Since then, Ryan has worked tirelessly to sell his vision to congressional colleagues, not without success. His 2011 “Path to Prosperity” budget won the support of almost every House Republican, even though, as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said of the proposal, “At 37 footnotes, it might be the most annotated suicide note in history.”
While he admired the congressman’s chutzpah, Krauthammer’s point was well-founded. A few weeks later, Democrat Kathy Hochul won an off-year election in New York’s 26th Congressional District by running against Ryan’s Medicare plan. The loss was especially cruel for Ryan because the area had been represented in the 1970s and 1980s by his mentor, Jack Kemp, in what was then the 31st District.
Ryan has proved undeterred, even if a majority of Americans have slammed the door in his face. Last week, a poll by Public Policy Polling found that only 19 percent of respondents supported the most contentious part of his Medicare proposal -- changing the program’s open-ended benefit to a voucher program.
He understands that the term “voucher” conjures up images of the ticket you get when your trip to Disney World is rained out, so he calls his proposal a “premium support plan.” Careful branding isn’t the only way Ryan has tried to sell his ideas. More notable is the structure of his sales pitch. When he marshals his facts, he doesn’t deploy them like an annoying high-school debater, scoring minor points at the expense of the larger argument. Instead, he uses them to define problems that admit to only one solution -- the very one he favors.
Using ominous language that makes you wonder whether he isn’t hoarding canned goods in his basement, Ryan goes further. “We’re in a different, and dangerous, moment,” he said when he was first introduced as Mitt Romney’s running mate. “We’re running out of time -- and we can’t afford four more years of this.”
To the degree that you believe the growth of Medicare is a ticking time bomb whose danger is only exceeded by the “debt crisis,” Ryan’s proposals not only seem sensible, they may be obligatory.
As a national candidate, he faces two challenges. The first highlights the tension between substance and style. Campaigns aren’t exactly conducive to educating voters, particularly when the lesson a candidate aims to teach is something they don’t want to hear. Ryan has little time to introduce himself, much less make his case.
The second challenge is more considerable. He has relied on his ingratiating style to persuade people to hear him out. Now he faces criticism that is the bane of the best salesmen, namely, that his pitch and persona have the whiff of something disingenuous.
Ryan’s fate, and that of the Republican ticket, will depend on whether he can convince voters that his proposals are a response to pressing circumstances, rather than an attempt to take advantage of them. If he fails to close the deal, will he lose his magic touch, or simply dust himself off and start selling for 2016?
(John Paul Rollert teaches leadership at the Harvard Extension School. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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