Another victory for Team Wonderbread.

 Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) means that he has scored a PR coup and won the all-important mid-August weekend news cycle. What can you say about the pick but the obvious? Ryan is the most inspiring vice-presidential candidate since Jack Kemp helped Bob Dole win in 1996, the most ideologically pure candidate since George Wallace chose Curtis LeMay in 1968, and the most boyish sidekick since Batman adopted Robin.

Republicans are strangely jubilant today, as are Democrats; we should remember that vice-presidential picks almost uniformly do not matter, unless they are disastrous (Eagleton, Palin) or give us catchy slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!”). But the current flood of punditry suggesting VPs don’t matter is badly wrong. True, vice presidents don’t matter in the election. But Robert Caro’s new LBJ biography offers a powerful and sober reminder that America’s vices often become their chiefs, as happened in 1974, 1963, 1945, and 1923, and as should have happened in 1919 and nearly happened during Eisenhower’s heart attacks in the 1950s (imagine Richard Nixon as president in the 1950s!) and Reagan’s near-death in 1981. From time to time, presidential incapacitation as defined by the 25th Amendment means that contemporary vice presidents serve as Acting President, with all the awesome powers of the actual chief magistrate. Indeed, Dick Cheney twice served as commander-in-chief during the Bush years under this little-used constitutional provision (which just seems ripe for a Seven Days in May-style abuse). In all, fourteen vice presidents have served as president out of a total of 47 (there are 44 presidents but 47 vices since some VPs, like Hannibal Hamlin or John Nance Garner, have been fired).

There are other reasons why Ryan matters besides the fact that Mitt Romney may still be elected president, and Paul Ryan thus has a shot at being president. (If we put p(Romney elected) = .3, then Paul Ryan has approximately a 9% chance of being president sometime in the next four years (.3 * p(presidential succession = 14/47 = .3); remember this means that Joe Biden has about a 21% chance (.3 * .7).)

The first is that Romney will now have to define himself on policy. Some are suggesting that Ryan will fall in line behind Romney, but this assumes a standard campaign in which the chief has well-defined views and the second banana is malleable (think Reagan-Bush ’80). That is not the case here. Moreover, by choosing a siting congressman–the first on any ticket since Geraldine Ferraro ’84 and on a GOP ticket since William Miller ’64–Romney loses some ability to distance himself from the House Republican majority and the, um, Ryan budget. Is Romney, the flip-flopper nonpareil, going to ask Ryan to disavow those policies? It beggars belief.

Second, Ryan is now the frontrunner for the 2016 nomination. Republicans are allegedly more hierarchical than Democrats in choosing their frontrunners, and although the track record of losing VP candidates in subsequent presidential nominations is somewhat mixed (Dole, ’76 nominee, failed in ’88; Palin, ’08, failed in ’12; Kemp, ’96, didn’t try) in the absence of any other strong national figure Ryan will benefit immensely from the exposure he’s about to get. He’ll benefit all the more so because his pick was clearly a sop to the party’s ideological and pundit base, and those are the precise power-brokers and activists who play a disproportionate role in anointing presidential candidates (e.g.).

Other reactions:

Finally, a hobbyhorse: Nobody cares about foreign relations in this election. Ryan is a domestic politics guy; Romney clearly doesn’t know anything beyond talking points on the subject; and neither the president nor vice president are investing much effort in the matter. And so, for those few people who think that the chief executive of the unipole affects global governance, the content of Web pages such as this is extremely dispiriting (what, exactly, does Abraham Lincoln have to do with foreign policy? Is Romney pledging to keep the British out of Richmond and the French out of Mexico?) but actually much less depressing than the fact that the Obama campaign’s “foreign policy” section is labeled “National Security“, as if the two were synonymous.