DANVILLE, Ky. — In the spin room after the vice presidential debate Thursday night, Republican operatives gamely described the face-off as a battle between good ideas and bad ideas; common sense and nonsense; forward-looking solutions and backward-looking defensiveness.
One thing it was not: a defining battle between conservatism and liberalism.
Paul Ryan's addition to the Republican ticket in August was supposed to reshape the presidential race into a sharp clash of ideologies — a battle of ideas that would present the electorate with a clear choice between the free-market ideals Ryan championed in the House, and the Obama administration's government-centered populism.
The Wall Street Journal defined the conservative enthusiasm for the Ryan pick at the time with a glowing editorial:
More than any other politician, the House budget chairman has defined those stakes well as a generational choice about the role of government and whether America will once again become a growth economy or sink into interest-group dominated decline.
But after a short, buzzy week of excitement immediately following his pick, Ryan's reputation as a conservative movement leader was buried under a pile of disciplined talking points and running-mate grunt work. After effectively vanishing from the national stage, Ryan re-emerged Thursday not as the intellectual leader of the right, but as passable debater with a slightly crooked necktie.
The debate that took place — with Vice President Biden repeatedly cutting him off, and Ryan talking around specific questions about the bold budget-cutting plan he introduced in the House — was nothing like the crusading wonk-fest many Republicans expected from him months ago.
Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chen, for example, praised Ryan's defense of the campaign's Medicare position as "masterful," but rejected the notion that Thursday's debate represented a generation-defining battle of ideas.
Similarly, Ryan's chief spokesman, Michael Steel, demurred when he was asked whether the debate provided a contest between conservatism and liberalism.
"I really think of it as backward-looking versus forward-looking," he offered.
Russ Schriefer, senior Romney campaign strategist, said Ryan didn't distance himself from his conservative principles, but that most voters didn't view the debate as a clash of ideologies.
"I mean, I can see it as that, but I think the viewer at home isn't necessarily looking at it through an ideological prism," he said. "I think they're looking at it as whose ideas make the most sense, and I think that the Romney/Ryan ideas make a lot more sense."
When Social Security came up, Ryan spent much of his time insisting that his plan did not include a "voucher" — he preferred "guaranteed benefit" — and stressing that under his proposals, the program wouldn't change for many years. Rather than fiercely advocate a restructuring of Medicare, he tried to hit the Obama campaign for "taking $716 billion out of Medicare to spend on Obamacare."
And when it came time to talk up his own record in Congress, one of Ryan's chief selling points was that he worked on a plan that was "put together with a prominent Democrat Senator from Oregon."
A wise nod toward independents who like bipartisanship, perhaps — but not exactly the rhetoric of a conservative hero.
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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