My years of debate experience have taught me that the most fundamental choice you have to make when deciding upon a strategy is whether or not to engage in a debate over the framework (Sidenote: If you’re unfamiliar with the term framework in the context of debate, the framework determines how various incompatible values are evaluated against each other. For example if an action saves a life, but violates a people’s rights, the framework would determines whether the good done by saving a life is more important than the bad done by violating rights. In this case a utilitarianism would value the life while deontology would favor rights.) or just concede it and spend all of your time winning on the issues themselves.
If both sides choose to engage on both the framework and on the issues, the winner of the framework debate nearly always will emerge victorious because there simply isn’t enough time to articulate positions on the issues that function in both frameworks and each side will tend to craft their arguments on the issues to function best in their own framework. Conceding the framework and choosing to debate in your opponent’s framework can be a great strategy option because it allows you to not bother spending time introducing your own competing framework and focus entirely on the issues. Of course it has the downside of letting your opponent choose the framework.
An election can be thought of as a debate of sorts with the question as hand being who should hold the office in question and the judges are each voter. In a debate competition, the framework is determined by the debaters. In an election, it is set by each voter who gets to decide what issues they care about and what criteria they will use to determine for whom they will cast their vote. Candidates face a similar strategy choice to debaters in that they can either choose to only talk about the issues voters want to hear about or they can attempt to change the framework and make voters care about the issues that they want to talk about and convince voters to agree with them. This makes choosing to try to change the framework much more difficult for candidates. However, just like a debate round, when a candidate can engage in the framework debate and win, they very nearly always end up as the winner of the election.
Influencing the framework of elections is not just the goal of politicians. It’s exactly what Grover Norquist and his tax pledge are an attempt to do. Though the goal of outside groups and people is to have an impact on policy rather than trying to influence the outcomes of elections.
It is this basic campaign strategy decision that makes the choice of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s VP so interesting.
In the history of political candidates, there may not ever have been a candidate who chooses to run away from engaging in the framework debate as much as Mitt Romney. Romney’s campaign strategy over the years has basically consisted of trying to decide what voters want a candidate to say and then saying those things.
It’s harder to say where he ranks historically, but in the present day I don’t think there is a political figure who is more effective at deciding the framework of elections than Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan is so effective at deciding what issues will decide an election that the issues he wants to talk about not only decide his own elections, but they decide elections across the country.
Most speculation about VP choices centers around how they change the ticket. The assumption is that Ohio voters want a candidate from Ohio and therefore Rob Portman would be a good pick because he is from Ohio. The logic behind Marco Rubio being a good pick is that he is Hispanic and some voters want a Hispanic on the ticket. That was why McCain picked Palin and Obama picked Biden. Obama thought voters wanted experience and Biden brought that to the ticket. McCain thought that voters wanted a good looking Alaskan hockey mom and turned out to be completely wrong about that.
That’s what most analysis of the Paul Ryan pick centers around. People are talking about the fact that he is from Wisconsin or is a white male. Paul Ryan isn’t that kind of politician. He doesn’t win elections because voters in his district inherently want someone like Paul Ryan to represent them. He wins elections because he makes voters want someone like Paul Ryan to represent them.
For the choice to make any sense, it has to come with a complete reversal of strategy from the Romney campaign. Paul Ryan is not a choice that turns the Republican ticket into one that more Americans want to vote for. Up until now Romney’s entire strategy has been to transform himself into what voters wanted. Paul Ryan isn’t going to help him do that. What Ryan helps him do it is convince voters that they want to vote for a Romney/Ryan ticket.
Polling numbers up to this point make it pretty clear that voters currently prefer Obama to Romney. The old Romney strategy would have relied on either voters changing what they wanted on their own, perhaps due to continued bad economic news, or the ability to turn the Romney ticket into what voters wanted. The first option is entirely out of their control. This pick is a signal that the Romney campaign has decided they don’t want to try the second. If they were trying that, the pick would have been someone like Marco Rubio or Nikki Haley. Instead they will try to convince voters that Romney is the candidate they want.
Whether or not it is a good choice is essentially a question about which strategy is best because I think it is pretty clear that Paul Ryan was the best choice for changing the framework of the election. I tend to think this is a good strategy because I’m not sure if it was possible for a Romney ticket to transform itself into something voters preferred to Obama no matter who he had picked to be the VP.
Part 2 will hopefully be published in a day or 2 and will contain some more of my thoughts on Paul Ryan. Both posts are being cross-posted to both of my blogs.