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I think Allahpundit overstates the case against a Paul Ryan presidential campaign.  Whatever else Ryan might be, he wouldn’t be another Tim Pawlenty (or at least not the phony, weaselly, cynical Pawlenty who ran this time around.)  Allahpundit is right that it is tough to see a Ryan path to the nomination.  Part of it is that other candidates already in the race seem to have strong regional support  bases in the early states (Bachmann and Perry in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire, and Perry in South Carolina.)  Part of it is that Ryan would have difficulty finding a constituency.  I’ve written elsewhere that the nonlibertarian fraction the GOP nominating electorate can be looked at as comprising two groups.  The first are those looking for conservative authenticity and to a lesser degree a certain amount of governing competence.  The second group is looking for governing competence and a certain minimum of center-right authenticity.  Bachmann’s appeals almost entirely to the first group.  Romney appeals almost entirely to the second.  The combination of Texas job growth and Perry’s personality is giving Perry some appeal to both groups.  We’ll see how well he wears. 

It looks like Ryan would make a big media splash if he ran.  A lot of the more responsible conservative Republican leaders (like Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush and maybe Chris Christie) could well rally to Ryan.  I don’t know that they command many divisions among the voters.  Ryan’s record of voting for TARP and the debt ceiling would be a problem for him.  I could actually see him turning questions about the Medicare prescription drug program to his advantage.

Ryan’s biggest problem is that he would be stuck selling reality (well, mostly.)  That is a tough product.  Fantasy sells better at first.  Think about Bachmann.  She is against raising the debt ceiling (which would mean having to balance the budget in one year) and cutting taxes.  As Rick Santorum pointed out in the last debate, such a policy would have appalling results.   But, in a campaign setting, the policy problems are not a problem at first glance.  She says don’t raise the debt ceiling.  Cheer.  She says cut taxes.  Cheer.  The costs of those policies are never in view.  Since she will never actually enact that particular set of policies, the costs don’t even exist.  Her talk is cheap, but emotionally filling.

Ryan is in the opposite position.  His plans (the Roadmap,   and the Path To Prosperity)  cut spending significantly but gradually.  It is less romantic than demanding that the federal government immediately “live within its means.”  Ryan’s plans mean that we will borrow much less, and that the scale of our borrowing will no longer imperil our economy, but we will still borrow.  Ryan’s plans also come with clearer costs.  He tells us how much less he plans to spend on Medicare and Medicaid.  The costs of those cuts are inescapably real.  The only advantage of Ryan’s plans is that they wouldn’t produce immediate calamity.  

The problem is that it takes explaining.  It takes explaining why entitlements have to be reformed slowly.  It takes explaining why premium support Medicare is a good idea (maybe.)  It takes explaining why opposing Obamacare loudly and supporting tort reform is an insufficient health care agenda.  That is why (along with the details of some of his plans) I’m not optimistic about a Ryan campaign’s chances of winning the Republican nomination.  I am becoming more optimistic about the chances of a Ryan campaign improving the generally wretched quality of the debate.  Such a campaign could help familiarize the public with some ideas that are more important than the alleged  metallic content of Bachmann’s skeleton or how  “ugly” Rick Perry thinks he is going to be to Ben Bernanke. 

If Ryan does run, his campaign shouldn’t be the kind that folds up if he does badly in the Iowa Caucuses (never mind the Ames Straw Poll) or the New Hampshire primary.  If he can get the votes, great. If he can’t, the campaign should be an exercise in public education.  Even if he can’t win the nomination, he should be in every debate until the last.  At the very least such a campaign would prepare the way and make a straighter path for a responsible and reformist conservatism at some later date. 

I’m not enjoying saying any of this.  Ryan isn’t my first choice (Daniels) or my second choice (Jindal), but I would gladly vote for Ryan over any of the announced Republican presidential candidates and maybe I’d hold a sign for him.  And who knows?  Maybe he would even get elected President.  We could do worse, and we very likely will.

Update: Daniel Larison argues that it is unlikely that Ryan would run a symbolic campaign or enter the race if he felt he couldn’t win.  It is worth a read.  I don’t think Ryan, if he is to run, should or would run a strictly symbolic campaign.  I think he should run to win while seeking to advance his principles.  It might not be possible to do both, but my estimate of the popularity of Ryan’s proposals might differ from Ryan’s estimate of their potential popularity (I lean towards the pessimistic.)  What I’m saying is that if Ryan’s campaign hits early bumps and it becomes clear that he probably won’t be nominated, he could still add a lot of value by staying in and fighting for his proposals.  Doing so would of course impose a lot of costs on Ryan, so it is easy for me to say.

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