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Robert Bennett: Breaking down the 2012 vice presidency

Published: Monday, Aug. 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this July 19, 2012 file photo, Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Columbus, Ohio. Democrats are eagerly renewing their fight against privatizing Social Security now that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has picked Paul Ryan as his running mate.

Jay LaPrete, File, Associated Press

The topic of the moment is the vice presidency. Should President Barack Obama dump Joe Biden in favor of Hillary Clinton? Is Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan a good one?

One can argue that the importance of the topic is overblown; Vice presidential picks seldom have any impact on the outcome of an election. We must go all the way back to 1960, when Lyndon Johnson carried Texas for John F. Kennedy, to find a veep who contributed significantly to a victory. Still, the decision a presidential candidate makes about his running mate is not trivial, so the topic is worth discussing.

To the questions raised:

No, Obama should not drop Biden from the ticket. Doing so would immediately disrupt his campaign by raising a host of questions that would push Obama far "off message," such as:

"Mr. President, why did you do it, really? Isn't this an admission that you made a serious mistake four years ago? A sign that you are desperate? What will Bill Clinton do and say if his wife is a heartbeat away from your job? Given your history with the Clintons, won't that situation be unsettling for you?"

Yes, Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan is a good one. Not because of Ryan the person — a relatively obscure member of the House, with no administrative experience, he is not in a position to deliver any significant number of votes in any key state — but of Ryan the symbol.

His expertise in and outspoken commentary on budgetary issues has put Ryan at the heart of the debate over what should be done about our exploding debt and made him a symbol of fiscal responsibility. Democrats have demonized Ryan's proposals, but they have not been successful in labeling him an ideological zealot. He voted for TARP, and Erskine Bowles, President Clinton's chief of staff and later co-chairman of Obama's commission examining fiscal matters, has praised him as a responsible legislator who deals with fiscal challenges in a responsible way.

That's why Romney put him on the ticket. Every survey of public opinion shows that Romney leads Obama by a wide margin when the discussion turns to spending and the economy. Team Obama is trying to get away from economic questions and into personalities by running ads attacking Romney as a heartless rich man who doesn't care about anything but his stock portfolio. The choice of Ryan helps bring the dialog back onto Romney-friendly ground. Questions during the debates will be:

"Democrats attack Ryan's long-term budget as heartless and foolish, Mr. President, but where is your own? How do you propose to control rising entitlement costs in the coming decades? What is your response to those governors, some of whom are Democrats, who say that your program will bankrupt states through Medicaid? How do you respond to those analyses from non-partisan sources that show that your health care law cuts Medicare more than Ryan's proposals do?"

The first rule of choosing a running mate is the same as in medicine — "Do no harm" — and Romney has met that test. Few voters will choose or reject Romney because he chose Ryan. However, the election could show that he went beyond that low threshold if undecided voters move away from Obama on economic and spending issues as a result of Ryan's presence on the ticket.

Earlier controversies are settled; the decisions regarding the two running mates have now been made, on both sides. The question of how wise they were will come into sharper focus when Biden and Ryan debate each other.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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