Three years ago, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin did an interview with National Public Radio, which for a conservative like Ryan must have been like an expedition behind enemy lines.
Ryan did a good job explaining on the program why his home state — where President Bush lost by a narrow margin to Sen. John Kerry in 2004 — had been increasingly targeted by presidential campaigns, and why it was a state Republicans could win in future national elections.
"In 2000, we were moderately targeted," Ryan said. "We saw President Bush and Vice President Gore, at the time, come to Wisconsin, oh, maybe twice a month. I had President Bush in my congressional district probably once a week in this last election in the last few months. So we saw the beginning of being targeted in 2000. We were saturated in 2004. I think we’re going to be just, well, oversaturated in 2008."
Ryan is right — especially if, as expected, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois emerges as the Democratic nominee and continues to have trouble reaching out to culturally conservative swing voters in Northern states.
Consider how Ryan, on NPR three years ago, explained the conservative appeal Republicans could have with Wisconsin voters.
"Wisconsin is very much of a Catholic state, a majority pro-life state," Ryan said. "So I do believe that on moral and cultural values, Wisconsin is definitely a conservative state. So what we’ve seen is we’ve seen a coalition of Second Amendment-right advocates and rugged individualists combined with conservative family values. Those two elements have formed a majority coalition, which I think will be the success of the Republican Party and the future in Wisconsin."
Guns owners and church-goers? Although it should be noted that Obama won the Feb. 19 Democratic primary in Wisconsin, soundly defeating Clinton there (58 percent to 41 percent), that was before he famously dismissed the "bitter" people of small town Pennsylvania, who anchor the Eastern branch of the coalition Ryan describes in Wisconsin.
Two of the things Arizona Sen. John McCain must do to take the 2008 election are inspire the conservative GOP base to turn out to vote in large numbers and persuade the swing voters who could determine the outcome in Northern states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio to vote for him.
McCain can hurt himself in both areas by picking the wrong vice presidential candidate. He can help himself in both areas by picking the right vice presidential candidate.
The wrong vice presidential candidate would be anybody who is not a cultural conservative. If McCain picks a running mate who does not have a strong record of defending life and traditional marriage, McCain will lose. A socially "moderate" Republican vice presidential nominee not only would depress turnout among conservative Republicans but also curtail McCain’s potential appeal among the culturally conservative swing voters Ryan explained to NPR.
The right vice presidential candidate would be somebody who not only inspires the conservative base of the GOP in a way McCain himself has not, but who also has demonstrated appeal to Northern swing voters.
In a number of venues recently, Rep. Paul Ryan himself has been floated as a potential vice presidential pick. (When I appeared on Bill Bennett’s nationally syndicated radio show this week, for example, producer Seth Leibsohn, who guest-hosted part of the segment, asked what I thought of Ryan as a potential running mate for McCain.)
Ryan has much to recommend him (as do a number of other potential candidates). He is pro-life, pro-gun and pro-marriage, and has other assets to offer conservatives, too. In 10 years in the House, where he has served on the Ways and Means and Budget committees, his main focus has been on fiscal affairs. He has been an eloquent advocate for lower taxes, earning an "A" rating last year from the National Taxpayer’s Union.
He is the top proponent in the House for Social Security reform based on personal retirement accounts. He co-sponsored a specific plan with Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire that would have guaranteed current benefits, while also making Social Security solvent (according to the actuary of the Social Security Administration) and liberating future generations of working Americans from having to depend on the government for their retirement income.
Even so, Ryan’s fiscal record is not perfect. He voted for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and Medicare prescription drug plan, which were unwarranted expansions of the federal government.
He is also only 38, which could be both a plus and a minus. He would balance the older McCain, of course — and with 10 years service in Congress, he would enter the race with more than twice the federal legislative experience as the likely Democratic presidential nominee.