Contrary to the accepted caricature of his running mate as an over-cautious type out of the East, Mitt Romney took a flyer on this young congressman from the Midwest. He may still be a newcomer on the national scene, but Paul Ryan is a veteran idea man. Mitt Romney's picking him as his running mate was already paying off as a hurricane-spooked convention, its opening postponed, its nerves frayed by high winds and rising waters to the west, had finally sputtered to life -- thanks to Ann Romney the night before. No one else on that evening's program was quite like her, the keynote speaker having talked mainly about ... New Jersey. And himself.
Now the convention was about to gain speed and altitude, like a 747 lumbering down the runway. And would soon lift up, maybe even soar. This night, Paul Ryan was at the controls. And, you could tell, enjoying it. So was his audience. He could hope the country was coming along to check out the Republican Party's new look and, more important than its new crew, its new power. The power of ideas.
Paul Ryan may be a new face to a national audience, but he is a familiar one on the conservative think-tank circuit. His intellectual trajectory is familiar, too: from a boy reader's fascination with Ayn Rand's pop ideology to the Austrian school of economists epitomized by Friedrich Hayek ("The Road to Serfdom").
Unlike the usual political comers in Congress, this young man did his apprenticeship outside Washington -- in idea factories like Empower America, where Jack Kemp, that old supply-sider and quarterback, used to hold court. Young Ryan was a familiar figure in the little magazines of the right, then on the editorial and op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, long before he started calling the shots on the House Budget Committee.
Paul Ryan spent years thinking first, politicking only later. And his thoughts came with spreadsheets. On his big night, he showed he could present ideas based on numbers but not limited to them. His ideas may be as grounded in figures as a cost accountant's, but his spirit is Reaganesque. ("We can do this!")
There was no doubt Paul Ryan could energize this convention; he may even energize his whole party with a tea party populism. But when Mitt Romney's choice of this young man as his running mate was announced, it also energized another quarter: the opposition, or at least its tired old warhorses.
Oh, boy, here was their big chance -- to drum up Mediscare again, and roll out nostrums that may not have been new since the 1930s, but that still have power, or at least are thought to have power by those now uneasily in power. Or rather in office. There's a difference. Those now in high office may have run out of any ideas except staying there. Nor do they ever run out of straw men -- and Paul Ryan, it was thought, would make the perfect foil. They may not think so now.
Ronald Reagan once inspired the same enthusiasm on the part of his opponents on the left. He was just an "amiable dunce," to quote the Democratic Party's wise old man, Clark Clifford, who proved older than he did wise. Jimmy Carter's brain trust, to use the term loosely, welcomed this old B-movie actor to the presidential race. Ronald Reagan may have had an infectious smile, but, they assumed, nothing else. They found out different.
Much like the Carter administration, this one seems to think progress is nothing but more and more of the same thing -- more spending, more government take-overs, more happy talk -- even when the same thing has repeatedly produced the same disappointing results, from the static unemployment figures to the familiar misadventures in crony capitalism. (See under Solyndra.)
A confession: I've never thought much about Janesville, Wis. To be more exact, I've never thought about Janesville, Wis., at all. But if it can produce a Paul Ryan, with his family and work ethic and parish church and all the rest of his very American ethos, it must be a nice place. Like so many other small towns in the Midwest, and in America. Like a town called Pine Bluff in Arkansas, where I spent 30 years writing editorials for the feisty local paper.
You know the kind of places I mean. The kind of places that are still the backbone of the country. The kind of places that dot what Scott Fitzgerald called the dark rolling fields of the republic. Janesville has a nice sound to it -- like Bedford Falls or Hannibal, Mo. And you never know when some small town will produce a wonderful life, or a Mark Twain. Or, yes, a Paul Ryan.
Agree or disagree with young Mr. Ryan's array, arsenal and abundance of ideas and energy, this much surely is beyond dispute: He provides a dramatic contrast with his opposite on the other ticket this fall, the current vice president of the United States -- who's more of a political embarrassment than a political thinker.
There is a peculiar, pitiable air about an old plagiarist like poor Joe Biden -- the air of someone who doesn't have enough confidence in the power of his own words and ideas to rely on them, but must steal others'. Paul Ryan seems to have no need to appropriate others' words. He has enough confidence in his own ideas to produce, present and defend them. Vigorously. After his performance in Tampa, I have an idea, too: He can do this.