The Ryan budget is in the news once again, attracting questions about the issues that will shape the 2014 midterms. Worth mentioning, however, is that only in the last 20 years – since the Contract with America in 1994 - have Congressional campaigns consistently focused on national party agendas. Because of this nationalization of campaigns, Ryan, the chair of the House Budget committee, can establish the terms by which voters will evaluate Republican candidates in November.
Others have suggested that his place on the losing presidential ticket in 2012 has boosted Ryan’s stature nationally and within the Republican Party. By itself, this isn’t remarkable. Other losing veep candidates, from the formerly obscure Sarah Palin to Joe Lieberman (who was running for his third Senate term when he was nominated) have probably enjoyed a higher national profile than they otherwise would have.
In contrast with most other modern VP picks, Ryan joined the ticket in the middle of his Congressional career, and returned to Congress as the chair of a prominent committee. The typical model for modern running mates has been to choose someone with little or no national experience - Palin, Spiro Agnew, Geraldine Ferraro, John Edwards - or someone closer to the end of his career. Among modern Republicans, running mates who have retired from Congress have made several appearances – George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp.
In 2012, there was little doubt that if the Romney-Ryan ticket lost, the Wisconsin Republican would return to Congress (his district has typically returned him to Washington with comfortable margins). Appearing in the second slot is a risky proposition for a mid-career politician. A loss could derail a career, especially if the running mate is perceived to have contributed to the loss. Winning could be even worse for a politician with his or her own presidential aspirations - only one sitting VP has been elected president since Martin Van Buren (Bush). As a result, research on the "veepstakes" suggests that it’s not uncommon for those who are asked to say no. We've progressed past Daniel Webster's declaration that, "I do not propose to be buried until I am dead." A few unsuccessful vp candidates, like Edmund Muskie and Bob Dole, went on to have strong careers - though neither became president.
It’s possible that the current focus on national messaging in the Republican Party – building a brand around deficit and budget politics as well as opposition to the ACA – has changed this calculus somewhat. After his appearance on the presidential ticket, Ryan is even better poised to be the face of the party and to shape its national message. If appearing on an unsuccessful ticket can boost a political profile, then we may start to see more ambitious, mid-career politicians in the second slot.