Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Mitt Romney is spending his summer doing exactly what a presidential candidate doesn’t want to be doing: wooing his base.

The only groups of people among whom he’s confidently leading are married white men and women, and yet his attacks on welfare and the birth control mandate appeal pretty much only to married white and women. For a guy who was planning on being an Etch-a-Sketch, he’s only shaking himself further to right, trying to win over the people who are going to vote for him anyway. He’s badly in need of some improvement to his image and his running mate pick is his best chance.

The problem is his base wants him to pick one man: Paul Ryan. The Wall Street Journal took the extraordinary step of endorsing the Wisconsin congressman as the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee on its Wednesday editorial page: “The case for Mr. Ryan is that he best exemplifies the nature and stakes of this election.”

If that’s true, Mitt Romney is in trouble. Here’s why he will never pick Paul Ryan to be the Cheney to his Bush. (And if he does, why it will be a terrible blunder.)

1. Two words: Ryan Budget

James Carville and Stan Greenberg’s Democracy Corp’s recent study “100 Days Out” identifies three huge weaknesses in Ryan’s House budget that make it toxic for Republicans, which could possibly result in a wave election for Democrats: 1) It allows low-income tax credits to expire; 2) It gives tax breaks to the wealthy while cutting programs relied upon by the poor; 3) It dictates huge cuts and changes to Medicare that will end up costing both seniors and the taxpayers trillions more than traditional Medicare. While on the ropes in the GOP primary, Mitt embraced all three of these policies. If he selects Ryan, Democrats will hang his budget on Romney like an gold-plated sign that says, “I’m only for the .01%.”

2. Ayn Rand or Thomas Aquinas

You probably know that Paul Ryan is known for being a fan of the late abortion-loving atheist Ayn Rand. He once called her the reason he got into politics. When the “War on Religion” talking point emerged in the GOP earlier this year and Ryan recognized that he might be seriously considered for VP, he changed his story. “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan said firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas.” Any look at Ryan’s voting record will reveal which thinker his beliefs most closely resemble.

3. Wisconsin isn’t in play

Notice the state’s slogan.

The Romney campaign hasn’t run ads in Wisconsin in weeks. Outside groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS are still airing ads in the Badger State, hoping that Scott Walker’s recall win wasn’t just a rejection of recalls. The President is up by five percent in the state, and the three percent at most that Ryan might give Romney won’t fix that.

4. Mitt will look weak

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum nailed what RyanMania is all about: “The clamor you are hearing for Paul Ryan for VP is not about helping the Romney candidacy. It’s about controlling the Romney campaign—and ultimately the Romney presidency.” The people who want Mitt to pick Ryan are the people who never wanted Mitt in the first place. If Mitt gives in to these voices now, at least he’ll be able to blame them when he loses.

5. Mitt wants to win

For activist Democrats, Paul Ryan is the symbol of everything that’s wrong with a shrill, heartless GOP that cares only about easing the tax burden on the richest at the expense of everyone else. The Obama campaign has been busy portraying Mitt Romney as that exact guy. To America, Ryan is another boring white guy in a suit from a rich family. If America starts to see Ryan as the real source of Romney’s worst ideas, the empathy gap that’s keeping the President ahead despite the sluggish economy will only get deeper for Mitt. This is why picking a regular Republican like Rob Portman is a safer pick, even if Portman carries the lingering stink of the Bush administration. At least his biggest claim to fame isn’t his plan to gut the one government program even Tea Partiers love.

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at