Paul Ryan jumps into the race – between Cicilline and DohertyAugust 13th, 2012 at 12:29 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
Rhode Island Democrats could barely contain their glee on Saturday morning when Republican Mitt Romney announced that his running mate would be Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, the GOP’s arch-conservative top wonk – and none more so than David Cicilline.
Cicilline was running against Ryan before Brendan Doherty, and the Democrat’s campaign immediately declared that Ryan’s selection made the 1st District race “even more critical.” Doherty offered a far more subdued reaction, praising Ryan as “articulate, intelligent, and open-minded” but distancing himself from his Medicare proposal and opposition to Simpson-Bowles.
Cicilline knows his only hope of winning this fall is to nationalize the race and run as a generic Democrat, reminding 1st District voters that a majority of them are, at heart, center-left on federal matters. Doherty, like Ron Machtley in 1988, needs to keep voters thinking about how much they dislike the incumbent.
Romney’s choice of Ryan instantly gives Cicilline a powerful new way to portray the national GOP as a radical group out to shrink the federal government, cut taxes on wealthy Americans and phase out traditional Medicare. Doherty’s statement revealed the fine line he has to walk – distance himself from Ryan, but not quite so much that conservatives desert him.
The question congressional strategists are asking – not just in the 1st District but from sea to shining sea – is how much Ryan really matters. It’s not like Democrats were ignoring Ryan and his budget before he became the VP choice. Will his direct tie to Romney and higher profile make it easier for voters to grasp that argument? And will they buy it?
“The reality is that Ryan is now every Republicans’ running mate whether they like it or not,” Politico’s Kate Nocera wrote this morning, “forcing GOP candidates who would just as soon run from the debate over senior citizen entitlements to embrace the third rail of American politics like never before.”
Doherty’s aides are hopeful they can continue to maintain a safe distance from the national party, as they’ve been doing for months amidst a growing onslaught from local Democrats. They knew that was coming even if Ryan wasn’t next to them on the ballot – and if he gets a few more Republicans excited to work on the campaign and vote in November, so much the better.
Democrats also face a challenge: Brendan Doherty isn’t Paul Ryan.
Doherty is about as close to a policy blank slate as you can get – a bit like Eisenhower in 1952, drafted by the GOP because of his public service outside elected office rather than his policy positions. Paul Ryan is a committed movement conservative who’s spent almost his entire adult life on Capitol Hill and wants to push government in a sharply different direction; Brendan Doherty was a state trooper who probably didn’t spend much time thinking about the rate of taxation on capital gains before he decided to run for Congress.
Democrats’ strongest evidence for a connection is Doherty’s comments at a May Tea Party meeting noting that Ryan is “digging his feet in” on his controversial proposals: “I applaud him for that and I support him.” That’s a lot closer to an endorsement of Ryan than Doherty’s more nuanced recent statements taking issue with his policies.
But even if Doherty says he wouldn’t vote for Ryan’s policy blueprint, Democrats can make a different case – the only roll call that matters is the one for speaker, and Doherty will vote to put John Bohener and his Republican committee chairmen in charge of the House chamber, giving them the power to push through Ryan’s policies even if Doherty eventually votes against them. It’s basically the same case Sheldon Whitehouse made in 2006 against Lincoln Chafee, who by then was clearly estranged from the national GOP.
Replacing front-page stories about Providence’s financial problems with concerns about Republican Medicare policy undoubtedly benefits Cicilline, particularly if he avoids discussing Obama’s proposals for cutting the program. The Ryan pick just adds to the tightrope Doherty has to walk, and doing so won’t be easy for a first-time candidate who stumbled out of the gate and is facing one of Rhode Island politics’ most skillful debaters under a glaring spotlight.
The Republican’s ability to navigate the road ahead – along with voters’ willingness to reconsider their opposition to Cicilline – will likely determine who the 1st District sends to Washington in November. And once he gets there, the winner must face the fact that, Paul Ryan or no Paul Ryan, soaring health care costs are a real problem.
Update: Via Politico’s Charlie Mahtesian, here’s what national GOP strategists are telling Republicans like Brendan Doherty they should do to counteract Ryan-themed attacks – basically, fight the Democrats to a draw on the Medicare issue and then pivot back to the economy.
(photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)