Center for Strategic Communication

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan board the U.S.S. Wisconsin on Saturday. Photo: Flickr/MittRomney

Mitt Romney announced his vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, in front of the U.S.S. Wisconsin, an Iowa-class battleship on Saturday morning. But don’t interpret the backdrop to mean that the Romney/Ryan ticket is suddenly going to make national security a focus. Like the man at the top, Ryan is a fairly blank slate when it comes to national security, and his tech-policy record is a mixed one. Ryan just happens to be from Wisconsin, and the U.S.S. Wisconsin is moored in Virginia, a swing state.

Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee, which has a say in shaping military spending. But he’s tended to focus more on the budget deficit and domestic policy than national security. Ryan tends to talk about defense policy choices less as a matter of national survival and more in the context of sensible budgetary choices. In the few public pronouncements Ryan’s made about foreign policy, he’s sounded less aggressive than many in his party, but his geopolitical views are a work in progress. Like Romney, Ryan didn’t serve in the military.

On technology and civil liberties issues, Ryan has generally voted along party lines. Ryan opposed net neutrality bills; voted to extend the Patriot Act’s roving wiretaps and to immunize telecom companies from legal liabilities for cooperating with warrantless government surveillance. He co-sponsored a ban on internet taxes. Ryan initially approved of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which WIRED editorialized would “usher in a chilling internet censorship regime,” but backed down in the face of a pressure campaign from the internet-freedom supporters. Activists on Reddit cheered Ryan’s reversal on SOPA — and appear to have reactivated the Ryan thread now that Romney has tapped him to be vice president.

The theory behind picking vice presidents is either to shore up a presidential nominee’s weakness in some area; to reinforce a nominee’s strengths; or to build a solid brand that contrasts with the opposition. Romney doesn’t have much in the way of foreign policy credentials. But by picking Ryan, who doesn’t either, Romney effectively says that he less interested in drawing a contrast with President Obama on national security than he is in confronting Obama on the economy and the role of government.

The source of Ryan’s political appeal is his 2010 Roadmap for America’s Future, a document outlining a Republican legislative agenda that’s come to be known as the Ryan Plan. (You’ll be hearing a lot about it before November.) It was wildly successful, and helped the GOP take control of the House. Defense issues are not its focus. Ryan’s plan is about transforming health care, Social Security, the budget process, taxes, and other major domestic legislation. About all it said on defense is an approving quote from a nonpartisan budget director who says cutting the defense budget won’t end the government’s fiscal woes.

Ryan’s wonky proposals in his eponymous 2010 plan treated defense as merely one concern of the government among several. He argues his plan to change the congressional budget process would yield a more transparent debate on entitlement spending and “on other priorities — such as national defense, education, and scientific research.” That’s a sharp contrast with his fellow House Republicans on the committees overseeing the military, who came into their majority loudly warning against cutting defense spending.

Ryan sought to build a more forward-looking profile on foreign policy with a June 2011 speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society. Rather than striking a hawkish posture, he argued for building “expanding community of nations that shares our economic values as well as our political values would ensure a more prosperous world.” Ryan singled out Syria and Iran for criticism — and to a lesser degree, Russia and China — and expressed skepticism about the Arab Spring. The speech said little about al-Qaida or counterterrorism, and didn’t express a view on withdrawing from Afghanistan beyond saying the U.S. must be “committed to the promotion of stable governments that respect the rights of their citizens and deny terrorists access to their territory.” While the speech is less hawkish than most GOP foreign policy statements, Foreign Policy magazine judged it “a bit of a Rorshach test.” You could read all sorts of deeper meanings into it, if you tried.

Similarly, Ryan adjusted course from his 2010 plan in March, when his committee released its budget alternative to Obama’s proposals. That document opposed Obama’s immediate-term reduction in Pentagon spending and proposed to spend $554 billion on the military beyond the cost of the Afghanistan war, a level in line with previous budgets and notably above Obama’s initial request of $525.4 billion.

That seemed to indicate that Ryan was willing to exempt defense spending from his plans to shrink the federal budget. Ryan clarified that he thinks Congress has ”no higher responsibility” than to fund the military; opposing the automatic cuts to defense that Congress and the President agreed to in 2011 as part of a budget deal Ryan voted for; and agreeing with the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer that the U.S. should not choose geopolitical decline. At the same time, Ryan warned the military that his budget was “not, however, a blank check,” and called on the Pentagon to find “efficiencies” in its own budget process.

Sometimes that evolving view of military affairs has gotten Ryan in trouble. During the legislative budget debate in March, Ryan accused the military leadership of lying to him about their support for Obama’s 2013 fiscal plans. “We don’t believe the generals are giving us their true budget,” Ryan said. He apologized after the Pentagon took umbrage at his remarks. Still, figures in the military community who have spoken to Ryan give him credit for inquisitiveness and eagerness to listen and learn.

That makes the 2012 Republican ticket a departure from the party’s recent history. Democrats are usually the ones who nominate candidates for the White House without a national security profile — think Bill Clinton, John Edwards, or a certain first-term senator from Illinois. The GOP, in contrast, has put forth presidential and vice presidential candidates with deep geopolitical experience (Richard Nixon, Dick Cheney), heroic service in war (Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain) or a clear geopolitical agenda (Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan). It’s one of the reasons why Republicans have mostly enjoyed an advantage amongst voters on national security since World War II. Romney-Ryan, without military experience or a deep foreign-policy record, is something new. Romney and Ryan clearly plan on campaigning on their home turf — domestic issues — where they’re more comfortable.