If Paul Ryan looked and sounded like the tyro lawyer in a John Grisham movie delivering his first big courtroom speech then that's because, in a way, he was just that kind of rookie performing upon the biggest stage of his life.
Happily he had Matt Scully on his team so there was reason to think Ran's speech would be well-crafted at least. And it was. Scully put lipstick on Sarah Palin four years ago, writing a speech that hoodwinked us all for a time. He had a hefty hand in Ryan's too.
Not that Ryan is another Palin, you understand. Even so striking the correct balance between substance and style and content and tone with this kind of speech is pretty damn difficult. If Ryan succeeded in geeing up conservative activists desperate for some proper Obama-bashing he also managed to do so without coming across as someone dredging-up long-cherished grievances or indulging far-fetched conspiracies. This wasn't an angry young man, it was a disappointed young man.
If this is a pose then at least it has the benefit of being a good one. I imagine there must have been a good number of elderly voters, especially elderly female voters, (upon whom much depends this fall) who will have been impressed, perhaps despite themselves, by this young wonkish, fresh-faced young man with the nice, clearly-pleasant young family. Wisconsin is a pretty wholesome place, right enough.
So this was good:
It all started off with stirring speeches, Greek columns, the thrill of something new. Now all that's left is a presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed, like a ship trying to sail on yesterday's wind.
And so was this:
President Obama is the kind of politician who puts promises on the record, and then calls that the record. But we are four years into this presidency. The issue is not the economy as Barack Obama inherited it, not the economy as he envisions it, but this economy as we are living it.
College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now.
Despite these flourishes, however, there was something fraudulent about much of Ryan's speech. It takes some quantity of gall to complain Obama failed to save a General Motors plant in Ryan's district that GM mothballed before Obama became president. It takes even more chutzpah to complain that Obama ignored the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission upon which Ryan not only sat but against whose report he voted.
If I were Ryan (or Romney) I'd say that the President talks about the importance of long-term deficit reduction but that he only does so because conservatives have made America's fiscal-health an issue. Obama has been forced to play on this turf but, you know and deep down he knows too that for all that he talks (and talks!) about it you know his heart isn't really in it. He's a kidder, not a leader and he's not strong enough to discipline the budget. Because, when you dig down into the nitty-gritty, it's not what he wants to do. We care; he doesn't. Not really.
Something like that, anyway. Otherwise, the GOP makes it easy for Obama to point to the GOP's past fiscal incontinence and ask why anyone would take any lessons from this kind of motley crew?
Most of all, of course, you need some audacity to lambast Obama's Medicare cuts while being the author of a budget plan that would do much the same. As Peter Suderman says:
The GOP would have us believe that Medicare is both the biggest problem and the biggest success in American government, wrecking our public finances but also in need of saving from the current administration's cuts.
Well quite. For a man often-praised for his seriousness this jeopardises Ryan's pointy-headed Beltway credibility. This is an election campaign, however, so perhaps that's the kind of weight that must be jettisoned to aid the chase.
Equally, Ryan offered the required pledge to abandon Obamacare but, for those of us paying attention, failed to square the horrors of Obama's healthcare overhaul with the awkward fact that his own boss, Mitt Romney, passed a broadly comparable bill for Massachusetts when he was governing the Bay State.
For that matter, even if you accept the Republican diagnosis that's a very different thing from accepting that Romney-Ryan have plausible alternatives that might actually have some chance of passing, let alone working.
But perhaps the core argument Ryan offered was this:
None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.
That sounds very good but is the kind of line that, upon closer examination, makes almost no sense at all. As such it is the distilled essence of the Republican party's present mood. A politics of feeling and emotion far removed from practical concerns or, often, the lives lived by average Americans. And coming from a party now sworn to defending the biggest entitlements of all it's also nonsense. If that matters. Which it probably does not.
Still: taken on its own terms and judged in light of what it was supposed to achieve Ryan's speech earns pass marks. As he said, he and Romney are a full generation apart and the Republican ticket offers them as a kind of father-son double-act or partnership blending can-do efficiency with a long-term vision for America's future. This, they want to persuade you, is a serious team for serious times. Well, maybe.