Mitt Romney is not known as a gambler, but he took a gamble when he selected Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to be his running mate.  Congressmen lack the high profile of senators, governors, and generals, all reputed to be on Romney’s short list for vice president.  Indeed, no congressman has been elected vice president since FDR’s 1932 landslide swept John Nance Garner into the office, and Garner was not an ordinary member, but the speaker of the House.  To the extent the general public knew of Ryan before his selection, he was recognized as an advocate for radically restructuring Medicare and cutting other popular federal programs.  Ryan’s budget plans will certainly provide a target for the Obama campaign, which will try to take the focus off the dismal economy and stoke fears about what a Republican presidency would mean for those dependent on federal spending.  Ryan is also the first Catholic on the Republican ticket since Barry Goldwater picked Rep. William Miller (R-NY) to be his running mate in 1964.  Since Romney is a Mormon, this means that the Republican ticket will not feature a white Protestant, even though white Protestants are the backbone of the Republican Party.  Still, there are reasons to think that Romney’s gamble is a wise one, whether or not it ultimately pays off.

To be sure, Ryan’s record is far from ideal.  There is his now-qualified admiration for the bizarre and sinister Ayn Rand.  As a congressman, Ryan generally went along with what the Bush White House wanted, and he was an impassioned advocate for TARP.  Ryan has generally been supportive of free trade, and his career rating on immigration from Numbers USA is a mediocre C, though Numbers USA president Roy Beck notes that, recently, Ryan’s record on immigration has been getting better: “[D]uring this Congress (2011-12), Rep. Ryan appears to have discarded most of his bad habits from the Bush era.  Faced with 7 votes on immigration, he has voted to protect American workers and taxpayers in every one.”  There are also issues on which Ryan’s voting record has been consistently good.  The National Right to Life Committee notes that “Ryan has maintained a 100 percent pro-life voting record on all roll call votes scored by National Right to Life through his entire tenure in the House, which began in 1999.”

As a Catholic from the Midwest, Ryan embodies the type of voters the GOP ticket must win to capture the White House.  It is difficult to see how Romney wins if he fails to gain the Catholic vote or to win a number of major Midwestern states.  Romney and Ryan know this.  Romney introduced his running mate at his first appearance, on the deck of the USS Wisconsin, as a “faithful Catholic” who “believes in the worth and dignity of every human life.”  Recently, Ryan adverted to one of Obama’s most infamous comments when he told a Pennsylvania audience that “I’m a Catholic deer hunter.  I’m happy to be clinging to my guns and my religion.”  Ryan also stressed his Wisconsin roots before a large audience in his home state right after his selection, telling them that “I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers.  I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, I like to snowmobile here.  I even think ice fishing is interesting.  I’m a Wisconsinite through and through.”  Polls show that Wisconsin, a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, is now a toss-up.

Ryan’s selection also taps into growing anxiety about what our enormous and exploding debt portends for the future.  If Romney is elected, Congress will recognize that the time for a bipartisan deal to cut the deficit is at hand, just as Ross Perot’s strong showing in the 1992 election helped provide the impetus for a rare wave of budget trimming in Washington.  And few Republicans can speak about budgetary matters with the authority of Paul Ryan.  Erskine Bowles, the Democratic cochair of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, said this about Ryan in 2011:

He is honest, he is straightforward, he is sincere.  And the budget he came forward with is just like Paul Ryan.  It is a sensible, straightforward, honest, serious budget and it cut the budget deficit just like we did by four trillion dollars.

The reasons Romney’s gamble might not ultimately pay off are economic and demographic.  As necessary as budget cutting and entitlement reform are, they will not by themselves bring about a genuine economic recovery.  Ordinary Americans increasingly recognize that our economy has been decimated by the rise of the financial sector and by globalization, which is why Obama’s ads attacking Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital have been so successful politically.  Though he grew up in a town with heavy industry, Ryan’s libertarian streak may make it hard for him to respond to concerns about Wall Street and free trade among voters in the industrial Midwest.

And a Gallup report on the Catholic vote written before Ryan’s selection highlights the demographic challenges facing the Romney-Ryan ticket.  Overall, Gallup reported that Romney and Obama each received the support of 46 percent of Catholic voters.  But Romney led among very religious white Catholics by 62 percent to 32 percent and among moderately religious white Catholics by 56 to 34, while Obama led by 54 percent to 40 percent among nonreligious white Catholics, just as Obama leads among those who identify with no religion at all by 58 percent to 33 percent.  As Gallup noted, “As a general rule in today’s political world, the more religious the American, the more likely he or she is to be a Republican.”  The same survey also showed that Obama enjoyed the support of an overwhelming 70 percent of Hispanic Catholics.  If Romney and Ryan were running in 1980, before mass immigration and secularism transformed America, these numbers would translate into a GOP landslide.  But because Republicans since 1980 have acquiesced to mass immigration and done nothing to win the culture war, which is all about maintaining the public influence of Christian norms, they face an uphill battle this fall, a battle that will only get worse in the future unless the GOP finally summons the courage to curtail immigration and take on cultural Marxism.