Washington DC has a lot of silly “debate” lines that it uses to provide sound bites that don’t really say much of anything. For example:

  • “I’m sorry if I offended anybody.” (Used to apologize for incredibly bad behavior)
  • “My personal life is my business”  (Used to deflect significant propriety questions)
  • “We have more questions that need to be answered.” (Used to keep a minor issue alive to encourage the public perception that the other side is hiding something)
  • “They are playing party politics” (Used to pretend you don’t play them too)
  • “We reached out to the other side, but they refuse to do what’s best for the American people” (Used to pretend that a fair deal was ever offered by anybody, anywhere, for any reason)

One nice little debate line that has a special relationship to the recent Republican VP candidate pick is this: “They say they don’t like our plan, but I don’t see them offering one of their own.” This is a great way to deflect attention from the criticisms of a law or budget that you are trying to pass, and to make it seem like people shouldn’t be allowed to criticize unless they also offer something constructive as a replacement.

Like him or not, like his politics or not, this criticism cannot be aimed at Representative Paul Ryan. He is one of the rare congressmen with both the policy chops and the political guts to author his own plan, laying out a plan to significantly alter the structure of key entitlement programs (most notably Medicare and Medicaid). By taking Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney is making some interesting statements about what kind of presidency he wants, and about what he thinks he needs to do to beat President Obama in November.

First, Romney recognizes he is losing the mudslinging war. In the days leading up to his choice of Ryan, both his and Obama’s sides were firing childish insults back and forth, picking at issues that didn’t really matter… and the President was pulling ahead in the polls. This makes sense, because we already know Obama as President and he is widely seen as more likeable. Choosing Ryan was the single best opportunity to take a different tack.

Second, Romney’s campaign team clearly believes they can win by doubling down on economic issues. Ryan is best known for his willingness to challenge traditional entitlement programs on the basis of budget projections and economics. The Romney team wants every argument, whether between presidential candidates or vice presidential candidates, to be about the economy. And they need to win every time.

Third, the Romney team is trying to erase the memory of an ugly chapter in Republican politics: the Palin/Bachmann/Perry/Cain/Gingrich silliness of the primaries. Though Romney wants the rabid support of that crowd, he can’t afford to do so at the expense of the independents’ respect. Ryan is one of the few people conservative enough to satisfy the base who isn’t also overly simplistic, cheesy, jingoist, or mired down by ugly baggage. And don’t think Romney hasn’t noticed Ryan’s measured and generally gaffe-free communication style.

Fourth, choosing Ryan is a clear strengthening of Romney’s claim to be pro-life. Ryan has a very strong record on the issue of abortion, which is the single defining issue for many conservative voters. By choosing someone with that level of consistency, Romney hopes to put to bed any question of whether his administration would differ from President Obama with regard to abortion.

Of course, choosing Ryan has its dangers, too. There’s a good chance the largely Protestant base of the party won’t appreciate a Mormon-Catholic ticket. Ryan’s long service in Congress is sure to hold some controversial positions, and the fact that he’s done little outside Washington DC could hurt Romney’s claim to outsider status. Further, Ryan is the classic Rich White Male, and Romney has struggled to connect with anyone who isn’t. And looming larger than any of these problems is the simple fact that large swaths of voters have quick and visceral reactions to anyone who wants to change entitlement programs away from the status quo (despite clear trends showing their long term insustainability). Ryan could be a powerful ally, but he could just as easily help drive voter turnout for Obama.

That said, whatever else Ryan is or isn’t, he certainly is a Man with a Plan. He looks at the budget-busting trends of entitlement programs and doesn’t just know they have to change; he proposes those changes and signs his name at the bottom. When the President holds a healthcare roundtable, Ryan doesn’t just let everyone know what he doesn’t like; he lets them know what he does like, too.

I submit that this characteristic in Ryan is a hopeful thing. I don’t mind your dislike of his policies or disagreement with his stances, but I think it’s a positive thing when those who build and suggest substantive ideas are upheld as leaders, rather than those who merely criticize, content in the knowledge that this will score them enough political points to keep their careers in motion.

In fact, it’s amazing how easy it is to sniff disdainfully at creators in all walks of life while lavishing praise on the critics. We love reading particular movie critics as they rip films to shreds, though most of them have never made a film in their lives. We appreciate snarky theological bloggers, while heaping criticism on our local pastor for his mistakes or weak exposition in Sunday’s sermon. We look to journalists for their opinions on food, and then heap criticism on the cook who actually makes it.

I don’t mean to suggest there’s no role for the critic. But when Romney chooses a VP whose single most defining action in American politics is to write a budget plan nobody asked for, it suggests he is looking to build a team that creates. For all our sakes, I hope it also means he and President Obama can begin an ongoing campaign discussion about this country’s short-term and long-term needs. Goodness knows it would be better than arguing about the minutia we’ve been discussing to date.

In this election, the cheap debate lines are sure to come fast and furious. But at least this time, nobody can say they’re short on serious proposals.