Paul Ryan will shift the campaign dynamic

Story highlights

John Avlon: Mitt Romney's VP selection is a gamble that changes the campaign

He says Ryan has very specific deficit reduction plans that Romney will have to back

Ryan's focus on substance is a welcome change for a largely negative campaign, Avlon says

Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns.” He is a regular contributor to “Erin Burnett OutFront” and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to “Erin Burnett OutFront” at 7 ET weeknights.

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Paul Ryan is a bold and risky pick for vice president by Mitt Romney.

Forget all the talk about the risk-averse Mitt Romney and his policy-free campaign. Romney just embraced a man whose deficit reduction plans are impressively specific – and controversial. This is what a game-changer looks like post-Sarah Palin.

Unlike many of his fellow Republican congressmen, Paul Ryan has not been content to just demagogue the deficit and debt. He’s had the courage to put specific plans on paper that would actually deal with the problem. And Mitt Romney now owns those plans, for better or for worse. It may be the first time in American history when a nominee has outsourced policy to his VP candidate.

John Avlon
John Avlon

Ryan’s budget plan is serious and breathtaking in its scope. It seeks to take Republican rhetoric about reducing long-term deficits and debts and put it into specific policies.

Conservatives applaud the combination of vision and details in the plan, which would reset the government’s relationship with individuals on issues like Medicare, moving toward privatization. Ryan believes such changes are necessary to prevent Medicare from becoming insolvent over the long term. But for all Ryan’s deficit hawk credentials, he did not vote for the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson plan, despite serving on the commission – a serious disappointment.

Zelizer: How Ryan could help Romney

Liberals find the plans ideologically odious – and therein lies the debate we’ll be having over the next three months. It makes this election a real choice between competing philosophies of government – and that’s a healthy debate to have during a presidential election.

On the politics of this pick, Paul Ryan doesn’t automatically bring a state into the Romney column, like Ohio’s Rob Portman or Florida’s Marco Rubio might have. Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin has been trending safely for Obama, though the pick of the first district congressman will likely tighten that race.

Moreover, Ryan is a lifelong politician, someone who embraced life on Capitol Hill at an early age. He was first elected to Congress in 1998 at the tender age of 28, but he’d already developed a reputation as a respected policy wonk, writing speeches for 1996 VP-nominee Jack Kemp and numerous congressmen. He has thought deeply about his political beliefs and has learned to explain them in ways that resonate with a swing district in a rust belt state. Not incidentally, this is exactly the kind of voter that Mitt Romney will need to win over to win the presidency.

This ticket will invigorate the Romney campaign among the base in terms of both style and substance. The Romney-Ryan ticket represents generational change – Paul Ryan, born in 1970, is the first pure member of Generation X to be on a national ticket. It is also the first presidential team to not have a Protestant on the ticket – Romney, of course, is Mormon and Ryan is Catholic. It is another small sign of how our country continues to evolve.

Democrats are said to be “salivating” over this pick because it allows them to draft sharp contrasts on politically popular programs like Medicare and Social Security. They believe that as the VP nominee, Paul Ryan makes this election a clear choice, rather than a referendum on President Obama. This is the framing of the election they have long wanted.

But Romney’s surprising pick of Paul Ryan shows seriousness about governing and adds policy depth to his campaign. As a sign of the kind of president Mitt Romney might be, it is impressive and confident. And hopefully it will represent a decisive shift in this presidential election – away from “attack and distract” and towards seriousness and substance.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.