In Ryan, Romney gets man with (wrong) plan

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Paul Ryan is not the progeny of Ronald Reagan, as starry-eyed Republicans would have it. Yes, he has a winning smile and twinkling eyes. But he hasn't run anything bigger than an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

The closer parallel for Ryan is Dick Cheney, another Man With a Plan. George W. Bush needed a running mate who was older and wiser to fill in the blanks in his thinking. So he balanced his own vague compassionate conservatism with Cheney's bloodless neoconservative certainty.

On Sept. 11, 2001, as hand-wringers in the West Wing were wondering what to do, Cheney pulled his plan right off the shelf. It wasn't the right plan, but having something always feels so much better than having nothing. "Go to Baghdad, young man," Cheney told the president, and that's what Bush did. He deposed Saddam Hussein, occupied a country, turned a surplus into a deficit and left office with approval ratings in the 20s and 30s.

Now we have Ryan, the Wisconsin representative who is Mitt Romney's running mate. He is another Man with a Plan. Like Cheney's foreign policy wish list, Ryan's amalgam of neocon dreams doesn't have all that much to do with the immediate economic crisis that Romney says his campaign is all about. His plan is about the federal budget, debt and deficit. It's not about creating jobs.

Only in the short term is Ryan a plus for Romney. As a Man Without a Plan until last weekend, Romney was losing altitude. Rush Limbaugh, the Club for Growth and the Wall Street Journal editorial page didn't mind so much that he lacked core convictions on abortion or gay rights. This crowd was deeply disturbed, however, that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee didn't have a belief system akin to theirs on the economy.

What's more, Romney was being defined not as a Steve Jobs kind of rich guy (that is, he built something valuable) but as a Gordon Gekko kind of rich guy (that is, he moved money and workers around a chess board and came out a winner no matter what). It didn't help that the proceeds of that maneuvering found their way to the Cayman Islands and other places outside the United States. In early July, the Journal's editorial board told Romney to get off the water scooter and down to business.

Romney needed to quiet those critics. When he looked at those on his VP shortlist, great guys all, each had something missing: Was there a Portman Plan? A Pawlenty Plan? A Christie Plan? They had plans born of governing and experience. They did not have a Serious All-Encompassing Plan for the Future, complete with a slick website and catchy name.

With Ryan, all Romney had to do was add water, stir and — voila! — he had a product line his brand lacked. Sure, Romney had a 59-point plan he threw out during the primaries, but it was such a hodgepodge of bromides, the candidate rarely mentioned it. It never became known as the Romney Plan.

But Ryan may well be to domestic policy what Cheney was to foreign policy: a fresh vessel for old ideas beloved by the arch-conservative wing of the party, yet sadly irrelevant to the current situation or candidate. Privatize Social Security? Check. Cut every line item but defense? Natch. Shift everything to the states and let them kill it? Sure.

As for Medicare, Newt Gingrich, who wanted the program to wither on the vine, called Ryan's scheme for it "right-wing social engineering." With Ryan's plan, the vine dies. He will end it, not mend it.

As Ryan's plan is wrapped around Romney's neck, Romney may come to wish for the seasoned counsel of Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty, or some of the earthiness and extra pounds of Chris Christie. In other words, Romney may find himself wishing for a running mate who spent a little less time in the House gym and a little more with the guy working a double shift.

As Bush did with Cheney, Romney decided that it wasn't sufficient just to endorse the policies of Ryan — he needed Ryan himself on the ticket to placate his right wing.

The country now gets to decide if it wants a full dose of trickle-down economics, with the working and middle classes paying for tax cuts for the wealthy, who of course can be trusted to fix everything.

At least it won't be a campaign about nothing. This will be one about something.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.