The Age

By Jonathan Bradley

Like Sarah Palin before him, Paul Ryan is a risky vice-presidential pick.

If nothing else, United States presidential candidate Mitt Romney's weekend announcement of Paul Ryan as his running mate was a crowd-pleaser. That is, if the crowd in question is the one inside the Washington Beltway. For partisans and pundits, the Ryan pick was a godsend.

The most obvious winner is the Republican Party's base, for whom the Wisconsin congressman is something of an idol. Ryan has a deserved reputation as a conservative true believer and a somewhat undeserved reputation as a policy wizard.

He's best known for ''The Path to Prosperity'', commonly referred to as the ''Ryan Plan'', a proposal to alleviate America's budget deficit by cutting taxes and welfare programs, transforming Medicare from a government program into a voucher system, and putting strict limits on federal healthcare spending. For the numbers in his proposal to add up, the government would have to stop spending money on anything except defence, healthcare and social security.

Nonetheless, Ryan is a skilled enough salesman that he managed to get not just the House of Representatives' Republican majority to sign on to his plan, but also convinced Romney himself to endorse the scheme. Ryan's political talent isn't the personability possessed by figures such as Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. He excels as an insider who can turn fringe ideas into party doctrine and cynical DC scribes into weak-kneed cheerleaders.

For anyone on that particular fringe, Ryan is a hero. And that explains why Democrats are almost as excited about this pick as Republicans are. They're convinced that even though Republicans want a campaign that is, in Romney's words, ''severely conservative'', the American public will be taken aback by the severity of Ryan's conservatism. Democrats think Romney's willingness to tie himself so publicly to Ryan is as big a tactical error as Republicans believe it to be an ideological victory.

To understand the weakness of Romney's selection of Ryan, look to its biggest boosters. Anticipating the announcement was a column in the right-wing mouthpiece The Weekly Standard by Stephen Hayes and William Kristol. ''Go bold, Mitt!'' the pair urged. ''Putting Ryan on the ticket would ensure that the presidential race is a contest of ideas.'' Who better, they asked, to explain and defend Ryan's budget proposal than Ryan himself?

If the right thinks Ryan's policies will make the Romney ticket more popular, they're even more isolated from the US mainstream than the increasingly cloistered party had seemed.

Kristol and Hayes are right that Romney's selection of Ryan sharpens the distinction between Barack Obama's vision for the US and Romney's, but that Romney felt he had to make that distinction clearer points to one of his campaign's key weaknesses.

Hungry for a conservative acolyte and disgusted with the Obama presidency, the Republican right has never been comfortable with Romney as its standard bearer. Dogged by his reputation as a ''Massachusetts moderate'', the ex-governor has been assiduously courting his party's base at a time when most candidates try to tack towards the centre. That it feels the need to extend a hand to people who should be its most fervent supporters instead of courting swing voters suggests Romney's campaign still lacks the identity and confidence needed to take on a sitting president.

The Obama camp has long tried to paint Romney as ''weird'', and, to be sure, Ryan is a weird choice. But it's weird in exactly the way Romney usually isn't. A candidate with a reputation for being awkward, robotic and impersonal has made a choice more like that of 2008 Republican candidate John McCain when he impulsively picked Sarah Palin: risky and unexpected.

Romney should have been emphasising he was a safe alternative in tough economic times. Instead he has chosen someone known for his wildly divisive fiscal views. He should have been looking for someone to widen his appeal and bolster his limited foreign policy experience. Instead he chose a man who has never held a position higher than committee chairman.

The seldom-spoken truth of vice-presidential picks is that they rarely do much to help a candidate. But if they turn out to be bad choices — like Palin, or Democrat George McGovern's selection of Tom Eagleton in 1972 — they can distract a campaign.

Running mates do have one significant track record, though: of the 47 US vice-presidents, 14 went on to become president. If Romney wins, Ryan has a reasonable shot at one day occupying the Oval Office. Of all the winners from this announcement, the American people might prove to be the least of them.