WASHINGTON — Vice presidential picks are always judged by their effect on the coming election. They rarely have any.
This time could be different. The Democrats' Mediscare barrage is already in full swing. Paul Ryan, it seems, is determined to dispossess grandma, then toss her over a cliff. If the charge is not successfully countered, goodbye Florida.
Republicans have a twofold answer. First, hammer home that their plan affects no one over 55, let alone 65. Second, go on offense. Point out that President Obama cuts Medicare by $700 billion to finance Obamacare.
It's a sweet judo throw: Want to bring up Medicare, supposedly our weakness? Fine. But now you've got to debate Obamacare, your weakness — and explain why you are robbing granny's health care to pay for your pet project.
If Romney/Ryan can successfully counterattack Mediscare, the Ryan effect becomes a major plus. Because:
(a) Ryan nationalizes the election and makes it ideological, reprising the 2010 dynamic that delivered a "shellacking" to the Democrats.
(b) If the conversation is about big issues, Obama cannot hide from his dismal economic record and complete failure of vision. In Obama's own on-camera commercial — "the choice … couldn't be bigger" — what's his big idea? A 4.6 point increase in the marginal tax rate of 2 percent of the population.
That's it? That's his program? For a country with stagnant growth, ruinous debt and structural problems crying out for major entitlement and tax reform? Obama's "plan" would cut the deficit from $1.20 trillion to $1.12 trillion. It's a joke.
(c) Image. Ryan, fresh and 42, brings youth, energy and vitality — the very qualities Obama projected in 2008 and has by now depleted. "Hope and change" has become "the other guy killed a steelworker's wife." From transcendence to the political gutter in under four years. A new Olympic record.
While Ryan's effect on 2012 is as yet undetermined — it depends on the success or failure of Mediscare — there is less doubt about the meaning of Ryan's selection for beyond 2012. He could well become the face of Republicanism for a generation.
There's a history here. By choosing George H.W. Bush in 1980, Ronald Reagan gave birth to a father-son dynasty that dominated the presidential scene for three decades. The Bush name was on six of seven consecutive national tickets.
When Dwight Eisenhower picked Richard Nixon in 1952, he turned a relatively obscure senator into a dominant national figure for a quarter-century, appearing on the presidential ticket in five of six consecutive elections.
Even losing vice presidential candidates can ascend to party leader and presumptive presidential nominee. Ed Muskie so emerged in 1968, until he melted down in New Hampshire in 1972. Walter Mondale so emerged in 1980 and won the presidential nomination four years later. (The general election was another story.)
Winning is even better. Forty percent of 20th-century presidents were former vice presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Bush (41).
Before Aug. 11, Ryan already was the party's intellectual leader and de facto parliamentary leader — youngest-ever House Budget Committee chairman whose fiscal blueprint has driven congressional debate for two years. Now, however, he is second only to Romney as the party's undisputed political leader.
And while Romney is the present, Ryan is the future. Romney's fate will be determined on Nov. 6. Ryan's presence, assuming he acquits himself well in the campaign, will extend for decades.
Ryan's importance is enhanced by his identity as a movement conservative. Reagan was the first movement leader in modern times to achieve the presidency. Like him, Ryan represents a new kind of conservatism for his time.
Reagan rejected the moderate accommodationism represented by Gerald Ford, the sitting president Reagan nearly overthrew in 1976. Ryan represents a new constitutional conservatism of limited government and individual opportunity that carried Republicans to victory in 2010, not just as a rejection of Obama's big-government hyper-liberalism but also as a significant departure from the philosophically undisciplined, idiosyncratically free-spending "compassionate conservatism" of Obama's Republican predecessor.
Ryan's role is to make the case for a serious approach to structural problems — a hardheaded, sober-hearted conservatism that puts to shame a reactionary liberalism that, with Greece in our future, offers handouts, bromides and a 4.6 percent increase in tax rates.
If Ryan does it well, win or lose in 2012, he becomes a dominant national force. Mild and moderate Mitt Romney will have shaped the conservative future for years to come.
The cunning of history. Or if you prefer, sheer capriciousness.
Charles Krauthammer's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.