The surprise selection of Paul Ryan has some of the same features of John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008. It is, first of all, the “game-changing” move of a campaign that needs to take a risk, not one that needs a trustworthy veteran on the team (Cheney or Biden) or to simply reinforce the nominee’s identity (Al Gore). It’s also a move that plays to at least an element of the party’s base. In Palin’s case, it was a populist, anti-elitist backlash; in Ryan’s, it’s both the anti-spending Beltway elite and the Tea Party movement that organized around an opposition to government. And of course, Bill Kristol led the charge for both.
The most obvious difference is their levels of actual preparation. Palin, it emerged, just wasn’t ready for the spotlight. Ryan has been in it, and seems to be ready — though it will burn far hotter on a presidential campaign than for the boy wonder of Capitol Hill. But a large part of that readiness is about how ready the political ecosystem is for the candidate. Palin’s new staff, for instance, simply didn’t know enough about her. McCain’s staff answered many of reporters’ early questions of Palin’s Alaska website. When it crashed, they were at a loss. Ryan was just the subject of a searching New Yorker profile, has hobnobbed with elite journalists in Washington and New York for years, and is manifestly comfortable with the D.C. fishbowl.
Ryan’s nomination put me in mind of some of the questions I put to McCain and Palin’s hapless aides in those early days. Many were matters of basic personal and political biography. Pat Buchanan had, at one point, claimed she was a soldier in his movement — a suggestion that she eventually explained away. There was a John Birch Society magazine on her desk, a Jews for Jesus visit to her church, and a host of Alaska policy that neither the press nor the McCain operation really knew much about. There were, eventually answers — at varying levels of political success — for all of them, but it took a while.
Ryan, by contrast, is bringing on board a capable Capitol Hill hand who, crucially, has already spent a year defending the Ryan budget.
I went back into my gmail today to find some of those old emails to McCain staffers like Maria Comella and Michael Goldfarb, and frankly felt a bit bad for them.