How Paul Ryan will help Mitt Romney change the conversation

From the moment Mitt Romney endorsed and embraced the House Republican budget, authored by his presumed running mate Paul Ryan, Democrats pounced, ensuring it would be known forevermore as the "Romney-Ryan" budget.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee clearly doesn't seem to mind.

As with all of the big moments in a presidential campaign, context matters most. In selecting Paul Ryan, the intellectual force of the modern conservative and Republican movement, after a very rough summer spent on the receiving end of an Obama campaign onslaught of framing and advertising, Romney is not simply picking a safe choice of a governing partner and a fellow campaigner to help amplify his message. He is, instead, looking to change the conversation.

Romney has spent much of the last two months playing defense against attacks on his days at Bain Capital, his refusal to release his tax returns, the foreign locations where he houses some of his wealth, and his job creation record in Massachusetts. He also garnered less than stellar news coverage of his trip overseas and continues to struggle to find a way to break out of the 'out of touch millionaire who doesn't understand the problems of the average American' narrative frame Team Obama has built.

By putting Ryan and his deficit cutting plans, largely aimed at significantly altering some very popular entitlement programs such as Medicare, front and center, Romney seems to be demanding a new phase of the 2012 debate. It is an effort to turn the page from stories about car elevators, the Cayman Islands, and dancing horses and welcome a sharp ideological contrast with President Obama about America's fiscal future and the governing philosophies behind it.

Romney's senior advisers have argued for months that they needed to do little more than talk about the economy and unemployment each day in order to beat the president in November. The selection of Ryan as running mate makes it far more likely that Medicare, Social Security, and dramatic spending cuts will be as central to the campaign conversation this fall as jobs and the economy. Adding some of those famed political third rails into the mix is not just a potential risk Romney is willing to take, it is also clearly a potential risk he felt he had to take.

Of course, Romney won't portray it as much of a risk at all. He had already embraced Ryan's budget and is well aware that Democrats are poised to use it as a political weapon irrespective of his vice presidential pick.

But after watching the rise of the Tea Party, the hardened opposition to President Obama's health care law, the gubernatorial elections of Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, and the shellacking of their party in the 2010 midterms, Democrats believe they found some political gold in the Ryan budget. In May 2011, Democrat Kathy Hochul was elected to Congress from upstate New York in a special election in which she largely ran against the Medicare reforms in the Ryan budget. It was a brief moment of electoral success in the Obama Era for Democrats and one they hope to extrapolate to elections across the country this fall in the face of an undesirable economic environment. Ryan's position in a glaring national spotlight, they hope, will aid their efforts from the presidential race and down the ballot.

The Ryan pick also comes after a week of a growing chorus of influential conservative voices calling on Romney to choose him.

"The case for Mr. Ryan is that he best exemplifies the nature and stakes of this election. More than any other politician, the House Budget Chairman has defined those stakes well as a generational choice about the role of government and whether America will once again become a growth economy or sink into interest-group dominated decline," wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial board on Thursday.

Romney has never met with full approval or trust from the conservative wing of his party. The opposition to Obama, far more than a passionate love for Romney, has been fueling the GOP consolidation around its candidate since he effectively captured the nomination back in April. His pick of Paul Ryan can possibly go a long way in giving his base voters something to vote for rather than just a vote against the president. That could be a powerful motivator in turning folks out to the polls in November.

There will certainly be more car elevator-esque stories and other cable catnip to come this cycle. But, for now, we will likely see entitlement programs, spending cuts, and deficits take on a prominent part of the campaign chatter. So, brush up on your working knowledge of premium support. The conversation has changed (for at least a little while).