A political maxim holds that you can’t beat Somebody with Nobody. It largely explains why Mitt Romney was having trouble going head-to-head against President Obama.
The incumbent is a much more skillful and confident campaigner, and polls show many Americans like him, despite being unhappy with his policies and the country’s direction. Obama is definitely a Somebody and that’s an advantage.
Romney, wooden and rich, was a fat target for the White House’s vicious personal attacks. Despite the president’s economic record, Romney was proving to be a Nobody among many voters, including independents and even some Republicans. He was on a path to defeat.
But a major transformation is happening before our eyes. Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate is reframing the race and setting new terms of engagement.
Suddenly, instead of Somebody vs. Nobody, the campaign is becoming Something vs. Nothing. Because of Ryan’s substantive agenda and ability to articulate it, the GOP ticket is now the Something running against the Democrats’ Nothing.
Part of that dynamic is Ryan’s age, which, at 42, is making Republicans the party of change and the future. Meanwhile, Dems, with their burdens of incumbency and the decision to stick with failed, unpopular policies, are becoming the party of the status quo. The Obama-Biden bumper sticker says “Forward,” but their fixation on Romney’s taxes and his long-ago business career seem small and dated.
Biden especially, having morphed from gregarious and seasoned into demented and dangerous, is a vivid symbol of the tattered brand. The fact that the White House must keep insisting he remains on the ticket reflects a team on defense.
This remarkable development crystallized in just a week. The race now feels more like 2010, when the Tea Party swept out a generation of Democrats, than it does 2008, when Dems won everything.
You see the change in growing GOP crowds, which are far more enthusiastic. Fund-raising, never a problem, is even better.
Romney himself is tapping into a new level of emotion and energy. His team is setting the agenda, especially on Medicare, instead of just ducking the latest Obama incoming.
Most important for America, this is no longer a Seinfeld election — about nothing. The 2012 race is becoming about very big things.
In addition to whether Romney’s biography makes him the economic Mr. Fixit, it’s also now about deficits, debt, ObamaCare, entitlements and America’s posture in the world. Everything big is on the table.
Ryan didn’t change the dynamics singlehandedly — but almost. His selection is giving the GOP the jolt it desperately needed, and early polls show the race back to even. Some key states are leaning to Romney.
Of course, the tide could turn again. Besides external events, like a war in the Mideast, the biggest unknown is whether Republicans can sustain the energy and win the public argument over entitlements. Their initial foray looks smart: highlighting that ObamaCare gets much of its early funding by taking $716 billion from Medicare over 10 years, and contrasting that with Romney’s plan to repeal ObamaCare and not cut Medicare.
Still, the skeptics include some professional Republicans, who fear that Romney and Ryan have picked a fight they can’t win. Their view is the traditional one: Social Security and Medicare are the third rails, and he who touches them dies.
That belief, shared by both parties, explains why those programs have grown big enough to sink the country. The short-term thinking that puts winning the next election ahead of the nation’s well-being has run its course. The future has arrived.
In fact, the real question of 2012 is not whether to touch the third rails. The only choice is how to touch them. Either we change entitlements to save them, or they bankrupt America.
So far, Romney and Ryan alone recognize and accept that challenge. That makes them Something. All other things being equal, that usually beats Nothing.
To continue reading Michael Goodwin's column in the New York Post on additional topics, including Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, click here.