WARREN, Ohio — Today, Mitt Romney was going to put questions about his stand on Medicare to rest. Paul Ryan was going to show he could talk about foreign policy with a jab at China.
Instead, Mitt Romney got annoyed. Paul Ryan bought a reporter a hot dog for his birthday and answered an off-message question. And so the campaign, yet again, lost control of its story, with Romney making news on his personal tax returns, and Ryan offering a complex defense of his views on Medicare. And questions about the wisdom of picking a policy visionary for a running mate and then rejecting the specifics of his detailed vision grew deeper.
Romney's unlikely detour began when — in the midst of what is likely to be his last fundraising blitz without public events — he held a brief press conference at the Greer, S.C. airport. The objective, made obvious by the presence of a white board and dry erase marker, was to project a sort of wonky confidence on the issue that has dogged him since he announced his running mate: Medicare.
But while Romney scribbled his way through his talking points with relative ease, the optics were forgotten the moment a reporter asked him whether he had reviewed his tax returns to find out how much he'd paid, as he promised ABC News he would when he was in Israel. Apparently frustrated with the distraction from his Medicare message, Romney bristled at the question, calling it "small-minded" — and then spontaneously offered new details on his personal finances.
"I did got back and look at my taxes and over the past 10 years, I never paid less than 13 percent," he said. "I think the most recent years is 13.6 percent or something like that. So I paid taxes every single year. Harry Reid's charge is totally false. I'm sure waiting for Harry to put up who it was that told him what he says they told him. I don't believe it for a minute, by the way."
A campaign aide told BuzzFeed that Romney did not plan on talking about his tax returns today: "Gov. Romney was asked in Israel, he said he’d go back and look, which he did, and he was asked so gave his answer."
With that answer, though, Romney catapulted questions about his tax returns back into the news cycle, and gave a prominent Democrat an opening to begin hammering away again at an attack line that had grown stale.
Within hours, Reid's spokesman told reporters, "We'll believe it when we see it. Until Mitt Romney releases his tax returns, Americans will continue to wonder what he's hiding." And an Obama campaign spokesperson blasted out a statement to the press titled, "Romney Needs to Prove His Tax Claims."
Asked whether Romney's revelation was a mistake Thursday afternoon, one weary Republican strategist admitted frustration, but tried to add perspective: "I'm not delighted, but the day is young, and I no longer think in terms of weekly message cycle. It's only 2:00 pm EST, and by nightfall Biden could be talking more crazy."
Ryan has never endured Romney's prickly relations with the press, for reasons that Yahoo! reporter Chris Moody discovered today. It was Moody's birthday, and when the nominee discovered that, he determined to buy him a hot dog. Moody tried to demur, but Ryan persisted:
One thing you should know about Paul Ryan: He worked as an Oscar Mayer salesman during college. He even drove the Wienermobile, once. The man knows how to push hot dogs.
"I'm a little embarrassed," I said, feeling my pockets. "I left my wallet in the bus."
"I gotcha, I gotcha," he insisted. "It's your birthday."
Moody returned the favor by asking Ryan to explain why he had included $716 billion in cuts to planned Medicare spending in his famous budget plan, if he now opposes it. Ryan's answer, couched in the process-heavy language of Capitol Hill, was that it wasn't his fault the cuts had already been priced into the "baseline" and that while relying on them, he had also opposed them when they passed as part of ObamaCare.
Forget China: Medicare drove the day in Ohio.
While Ryan has provided a kind of spiritual revival to Romney and the conservative base with his hawkish commitment to fiscal conservative principles, he has yet to provide the substantive boost he promised. Instead, nearly very day since he joined the ticket, Ryan has been dogged by Medicare.
And the nominee has left the Romney campaign struggling to explain their theory of the campaign. A Romney aide explained to BuzzFeed that they believe Ryan's presence on the ticket doesn't take the focus off Obama.
"This is still a referendum on Obama and the Obama economy," the aide said, when asked why Ryan and Romney haven't laid out their plans for a host of policy issues. "We just need to remind voters about why this economy isn't working, and that reason is Barack Obama."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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