GOP Pros Fret Over Ryan

The most common reactions to Ryan ranged from gnawing apprehension to hair-on-fire anger that Romney has practically ceded the election.

You've heard them on television and read them on POLITICO -- cheerful, defiant statements from Republican political professionals about Mitt Romney's bold masterstroke in tapping Paul Ryan as his running mate, and turning the 2012 presidential race into a serious, far-reaching debate about budgets and the nation's future.

Don't buy it.

Away from the cameras, and with all the usual assurances that people aren't being quoted by name, there is an unmistakable consensus among Republican operatives in Washington: Romney has taken a risk with Ryan that has only a modest chance of going right -- and a huge chance of going horribly wrong.

(Also on POLITICO: Ryan alters campaign's dynamic)

In more than three dozen interviews with Republican strategists and campaign operatives -- old hands and rising next-generation conservatives alike -- the most common reactions to Ryan ranged from gnawing apprehension to hair-on-fire anger that Romney has practically ceded the election.

(Also on POLITICO: Ryan's voting record: Big-spending conservatism)

It is not that the public professions of excitement about the Ryan selection are totally insincere. It is that many of the most optimistic Republican operatives will privately acknowledge that their views are being shaped more by fingers-crossed hope than by a hard-headed appraisal of what's most likely to happen.

And the more pessimistic strategists don't even feign good cheer: They think the Ryan pick is a disaster for the GOP. Many of these people don't care that much about Romney -- they always felt he faced an improbable path to victory -- but are worried that Ryan's vocal views about overhauling Medicare will be a millstone for other GOP candidates in critical House and Senate races.

Let's get to the caveats: No one is asserting that Washington operatives in either party are oracles or seers. What's more, it is not as if there is anything like unanimity in GOP circles about the merits of the Ryan pick, though the mood of anxiety and skepticism is overwhelming.

Most of all, if you are one of those people who thinks if someone has something negative to say, they should have the guts to put their name on it, you won't find much to impress you in this article. Nearly all the Republican professionals interviewed for this story said they would share their unfiltered views only "on background" rules of attribution.

But Washington political chatter is a pervasive reality even when the chatterers prefer not to risk personal relationships or professional prospects by publicly second-guessing their party's nominee. For Romney, even if he ultimately proves the doubters wrong, the skepticism among capital insiders is an obstacle as he seeks to frame a general election argument.

And that skepticism about Ryan among GOP strategists is striking.

They're worried about inviting Medicare -- usually death for Republicans -- into the campaign. They're worried it sidetracks the jobs issue. They're worried he'll expose the fact that Romney doesn't have a budget plan. Most of all, they're worried that Romney was on track to lose anyway -- and now that feels all but certain.

"I think it's a very bold choice. And an exciting and interesting pick. It's going to elevate the campaign into a debate over big ideas. It means Romney-Ryan can run on principles and provide some real direction and vision for the Republican Party. And probably lose. Maybe big," said former President George W. Bush senior adviser Mark McKinnon.

"Whether or not they [the Romney campaign] want to say that they have their own plan on Day One, or whatever they're doing, it doesn't change the reality of them having to own the Ryan plan. How is that in the wheelhouse of creating jobs?" added a GOP consultant.

Joked another: "The most popular phrase in Washington right now is: 'I love Paul Ryan, but ...'"

"This could be the defining moment of the campaign. If they win the battle to define Medicare, then I believe Romney wins the presidency. If they lose it, then they lose big in the fall," the same strategist said, acknowledging that Romney had to choose from a flawed list of VP options.

The most cutting criticism of Ryan, shared only by a handful of strategists, is that Ryan isn't ready to be president -- or doesn't come across as ready. A youthful man who looks even younger than his 42 years, Ryan could end up labeled as Sarah Palin with a PowerPoint presentation, several operatives said.

"He just doesn't seem like he can step into the job on Day One," said the strategist, who professed himself a Ryan fan.

And that's just what it does to the Romney-Ryan ticket. Forget how it plays in close House and Senate races.

"Very not helpful down ballot -- very," said one top Republican consultant.

"This is the day the music died," one Republican operative involved in 2012 races said after the rollout. The operative said that every House candidate now is racing to get ahead of this issue.

Another strategist emailed midway through Romney and Ryan's first joint event Saturday: "The good news is that this ticket now has a vision. The bad news is that vision is basically just a chart of numbers used to justify policies that are extremely unpopular."

The Romney campaign isn't oblivious to Republican skittishness about the pick. In fact, several sources close to the Romney campaign said that top advisers to the candidate initially favored Tim Pawlenty as a "do no harm" choice for the vice presidency, and that even late in the process some leaned toward Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as a running mate who would bring gravitas and governing heft to the ticket -- without Ryan's obvious risks.

Sources close to the selection process tell POLITICO that within the Romney campaign, there was considerable unease about picking Ryan -- but also a recognition that each of the possible picks for running mate had drawbacks to varying degrees.

With Ryan, some on the campaign feared that his first and most crucial days on the trail would be consumed with answering charges about his views on entitlements and completely get the ticket away from its economic message. That's the signal concern now among the Republican worrywarts.

Asked about alarm in the consultant class about the Ryan selection, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Ryan's selection would allow Romney to campaign on big ideas and argued: "The excitement is on our side."

"President Obama and his Democrat allies have done everything imaginable to keep from talking about the issues and President Obama's failed record and to make this big election about small things," she said. "This election will be about the issues and President Obama's inability to get this economy going, regardless of how small President Obama and the Democrats try to make it."

Strategists across the party call that the absolute best-case scenario for the Romney campaign and everyone else involved: President Barack Obama gets forced into a policy debate on ground where Republicans are most comfortable, Republicans counterpunch hard on the Affordable Care Act and Democrat-approved spending reductions in Medicare, and Romney roars into November with an energized Republican base behind him.

Longtime GOP presidential strategist Charlie Black conveyed that view of the race: "We have plenty of time and money and four debates to air out this Medicare reform issue. And I think we win on it when we air it out."

Still, that remains a complicated way of saying Romney now needs to win a titanic clash of contrasting policies and ideologies. That may be a good deal harder than treating the 2012 campaign as a pure up-or-down vote on Obama and his handling of the economy.

"It turned a referendum into a choice," said one Washington Republican lawyer. "[Choosing Ryan] forfeited the no-real-world-experience point Romney has been building up for months [about Obama] and put a new state in play that was otherwise trending his way [Florida]."

A top Republican in the 2012 campaign expressed doubt that even a protracted fight about the national debt would produce the kind of outcome Republicans are looking for: "My polling says that while the debt does matter to people, (a) they don't really like any of the things we would have to do to fix it and (b) the economy has roared back as the No. 1 issue in every battleground state, eclipsing the issue that Ryan brings to the fore."

Republicans are not (evidently) at the point of publicly breaking ranks with Romney and Ryan, and may never get there. After all, Romney is still the presidential nominee and Ryan commands deep respect -- even awe -- in many corners of the party. Several have noticed that Romney seems more energized since Ryan joined the ticket and that their chemistry seems real.

Yet the Romney campaign has quieted few doubts in the 36 hours since announcing Ryan for vice president. The Republican presidential nominee has endured withering press coverage in senior-heavy Florida and dodged questions about where his views on Medicare differ from Ryan's.

The longer Republicans have to litigate this issue instead of campaigning on jobs and the economy, strategists say, the more ground they will lose against Obama and the greater the odds that Romney will drag down other members of his party.

The short-term trajectory of the race could turn around quickly if Romney's able to deliver a clear and consistent message on Medicare that parries Democratic attacks and sends him into the Republican National Convention at the end of the month in Tampa with momentum behind him. Ryan's first visit to Florida this coming weekend will be an important test.

Republican consultant Terry Nelson is hoping that a big debate on the presidential level will make it tougher for Democrats to mischaracterize the debate down ballot, where many Republican candidates in the House and Senate have already taken votes in favor of the Ryan plan. The more Romney and Ryan have to defend Ryan's plan in the presidential race, the more they'll provide air cover for other candidates.

Nelson believes, too, that if and when Romney comes out with a plan, that's what will matter. "What matters is not where Paul Ryan stands, what matters is where Mitt Romney stands. The Romney campaign may make its own proposal on Medicare, Social Security and the budget. At the end of the day, that will be the more important debate," he said.

Since Saturday, however, the actions of campaigns on both sides of the 2012 race have effectively spoken for themselves on the importance Ryan's plan may have in the race: Democrats have launched, almost by reflex, into a full-scale "Medi-scare" campaign while Republicans have rushed to blunt that argument with attacks on Obama's health care plan.

Yet another operative deeply involved in the 2012 campaign said that in "every competitive race in the country, strategists have held conference calls in the last 48 hours to try to figure out how to be on offense on this. A week ago we were talking about jobs, and this week we're talking about entitlement reform."

"Everybody loves Paul Ryan. Everybody supported the Ryan plan," the strategist said. "But nobody thinks Ryan should be the tip of the spear."

Well -- not literally "nobody."

"I am personally and politically ecstatic," said veteran Republican strategist Mary Matalin, whose publishing house imprint produced a "Young Guns" book co-authored by Ryan. "I have heard from all quarters of the party and have heard nothing but ecstatic shock and awe. What everyone wanted was a campaign and presidency of purpose with a mandate for reform. In addition to the issue excitement, there were universal accolades for the manner, method and substance of Romney's decision-making process."

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