Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why Paul Ryan Doesn't Matter

. Sunday, August 12, 2012

This has nothing to do with ideology. It is equally true if your politics are from the right, left, or middle. Paul Ryan's nomination by the Republican Party as the candidate for Vice President of the United States almost certainly means nothing of any significance. Or, at minimum, it almost certainly means nothing of any significance that we could possibly know right now. You may all read this post as my attempt to get everyone to shut up about this so my e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and news browsing are no longer cluttered with trite discussions of Paul Ryan.

Let's start by trying to figure out why it could matter that Paul Ryan is the GOP nominee for vice president versus almost any other plausible person. We know that vice presidential nominees have very little effect on electoral outcomes, so that can't be it. Another possibility is that Ryan's policy preferences are different from Romney's policy preferences: the former is to the right of the latter and, as PM noted in a post that inspired this one, historically there is a roughly 30% chance that a vice president will serve as president due to the president's incapacitation, death, or resignation. If your own policy preferences are to the right of Romney's, you like the fact that Ryan is to the right of Romney. Perhaps he can influence Romney a bit. Or, in the event of Romney's incapacitation, you'd rather have someone from the right ascend to the presidency. Flip all that if your preferences are to the left of Romney's. Since one group is pleased by this possibility and the other chagrined, that must be an important difference, right?

Wrong. I'm sure Ryan and Romney's ideal points are somewhat different. I don't think their ideal points are all that far apart, but let's say they're distinguishable enough that it constitutes a qualitative difference in preferences over outcomes such that we would be able to tell the difference between them in a dictatorship. We still won't be able to in a parliamentary democracy that looks like ours looks. Here's why:

If Ryan is to Romney's right, then a Ryan presidency would be exactly indistinguishable from a Romney presidency under the following condition: the median voter in the House or Senate will be to the left of both of them on every issue of difference between them. This condition is almost certainly met. Differences over outcomes under their respective presidencies could occur only if the status quo ante is in between their ideal points and to the right of the median voter in both the House and Senate. In that case policy could move towards the middle in a Romney presidency and would be stuck in a Ryan presidency.

I hear some of you saying already that the median voter model is too simplistic to capture reality. I would respond in several ways:

1. It's much more complicated than simply noting that their ideal points are different and assuming that that matters;

2. Median voter models work pretty well when the voters possess lots of information and are more-or-less required to participate, as in the legislative process;

3. There is some pivotal voter in the House and Senate capable of constraining Ryan and Romney, and that person is almost certainly to the left of both of them on every significant issue;

4. Point #3 means that a median voter model likely stacks the deck in favor of the argument that any difference between Ryan and Romney is significant when compared to the real world: consider that for this not to be true, under the cloture rule the 60th most-liberal senator -- i.e. the 40th least conservative senator -- would have to be more conservative than Romney. The most recent data suggests that person at present is probably Ben Nelson (D-NE) or Olympia Snowe (RINO-ME), neither of whom are to the right of Romney on any notable issue that I know of.

Of these, #1 is inarguable, #2 is irrelevant if #3 is true, and if #3 is not true, then you should be ambivalent between Romney and Obama (and no one but me seems to be). #4 just drives home #3. So either the difference between Ryan and Romney doesn't matter or the difference between Romney and Obama doesn't matter. Which of those seems more likely to you?

Keep in mind that this only holds for issues in which the legislature plays a major role in setting policy. The president has more unilateral authority over foreign policy than domestic policy, so perhaps there are meaningful differences between Ryan and Romney there. The problem here is twofold: first, foreign policy doesn't map all that well onto a left-right ideological map; second, we don't really know what either Ryan or Romney really think about foreign policy. They might be close together; they might be far apart. Romney might be more hawkish than Ryan. We don't know. Saying that some unknown quantity might be different from some other unknown quantity would be right, but we can't do any comparative analysis on two unknown quantities so we have nothing interesting to say on the topic. Moreover, this would be true of almost anyone Romney could conceivably have picked, so again there's nothing interesting about Ryan per se.

The final argument is that nominating Ryan this election cycle gives him a leg up towards the nomination in future election cycles. Note that since the GOP will nominate someone in future cycles, this changes nothing about points #1-4 above.


Why Paul Ryan Doesn't Matter
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