There are a lot of elements to the selection. Lets start with the fact that Republicans have a history of trying to juice up a boring, moderate candidate with a young, vibrant conservative. While McCain's selection of Palin is the most recent example, it was also true for Bush I and Dan Quayle.
The difference here is that Ryan is not just another pretty face beloved by the base. Whatever one thinks of Ryan's policies and whether they hold water (more on this below), Ryan is smart and talks a good game on policy. Ryan is not going to claim expertise in foreign policy because he can see Russia for his house, or misspel "potato." Krugman may dismiss Ryan as a unserious because he engages in some standard beltway sleight of hand, this misses the point. Ryan is a standard bearer for the conservative movement in a way that goes beyond the mere mouthing of generalities and talking points.
Which means we shift the discussion back to what passes for policy debate in this country. Happily, this is welcome by both Progressives and Conservatives, each of whom feels that the rest of the country should agree with our/their side once explained properly.
What Does It Mean To Have A Modern Debate About Policy?
It would be nice if we had policy debates like the old Lincoln/Douglas debates. We don't. Our debates start with the presumed effect and work backwards. e.g., "the Ryan budget is evil because it cuts social services to the poor v. the Obama plan punishes success." We also ignore anything that vaguely looks like nuance. To make matters worse, or so-called media are utterly unable to handle anything vaguely like substance, so the "coverage" and "analysis" are all about style. It's as if E! were covering the election, but with fewer references to Kim Kardashian (NB: fewer not "none").
This leaves the average American in something of a pickle if he or she wants to look at substance. In theory, the Internet can defeat this problem by allowing the candidates to get out there unmediated and by allowing lots of experts to provide their expert opinions on the proposals provided by the candidates in as long and substantive an analysis as they want. Unfortunately, we have developed a cottage industry in destroying trust in anything vaguely like an expert opinion. We also have a deeply divided electorate at varying degrees of education and background (or English fluency). A sizable segment of the population has no Internet access in the home, limited access via a mobile device only, or have speed or capacity limitations that limit the utility of the Internet as a research tool. Most of the population lacks a basic background in economics or political science. And, just to make things more interesting, our consolidated media bombards us with a constant stream of advertisements from undisclosed interests trying to influence our decisions.
So when I say we will have a "substantive" policy debate, it is important to set our standards at the right place: abysmally low. What we are going to have is a beauty contest among two philosophies. It's kinda like the trope in fantasy and comics where some random person gets to make an earth changing decision based on ridiculously little evidence but it's OK because their spirit is pure and this is his/her DESTINY. (e.g., Tyler Moorlock from PS 238 deciding if human beings get to keep super powers). Only in this case, multiply by about 100 million for the total electorate.
On the plus side, this is going to be much more substantive than any election since 1980, when the country decided to ditch the neo-Keynsian Great Society Social Contract vision for the neo-Liberal Deregulatory approach. Since 1980, Democrats and Republicans have pretty much tried to portray themselves as having nearly identical economic theories and theories of government (while accusing the other of being "out of the mainstream") and distinguishing themselves on social issues and vague generalities. For the first time in 22 years each party is proudly saying "I have a very different vision of how government ought to work, choose my vision because it will make your life better."
Obama is arguing not for an LBJ-esque Great Society, but to preserve the fundamentals of the New Deal. It is a fairly straightforward argument that government invests in infrastructure, sets limits on corporate behavior to smooth out the peaks and valleys of the boom-bust cycle, and acts as a safety net for the helpless. Ryan (and Romney) are arguing for Milton Freidmen-esque deregulation and disengagement. "Government intervention distorts the 'real' economy and actually prolongs the economic pain" is the argument. " This is coupled with Reagn-esque trickle down that if we leave money in the hands of the wealthy they will inevitably spend it in economically useful ways.
I have my personal opinions about which approach is overall better. But at least the generic flavors are fairly clear.
So are 'values' totally gone?
For those worried that we will lack for suitable distractions in the "values" department, fear not! Americans incapable of evaluating the evidence on the merits for the reasons given above (which is the majority of the electorate) use values as a proxy. I may not understand what this guy is saying, but if I trust him then I can trust that what he is saying is the way to go." This becomes problematic when you don't trust any of the candidates, but 'trust' is another one of those words that has to be defined in context. Do I think this person even vaguely has my interests at heart? If not, whose interests does he have at heart?
Conservatives have been trying to portray Obama as untrustworthy for 4 years. At this point, the market is fairly mature. If you are going to hate Obama, you already do. Obama's problem with swing voters (according to most polls) has not been on the shared values/best interest questions, but on the effectiveness right path/wrong path questions. in other words, he cares but he's incompetent. By contrast, Romney has been seen as increasingly negative on the "does he care about me" questions, although most people regard him as more likely to be effective. So in the fight between a well-meaning nerdy doofus and ruthless bastard who would as soon fire me as hire me, folks have been leaning toward well-meaning doofus.
Which is where the GOP hopes Ryan can step in. According to the GOP faithful and the press, Ryan is Reagan reincarnate, possessed of an ability to communicate with the people and commune with them. Mind you, this has yet to be tested outside the party faithful and the press corps. But it has become factesque through constant repetition.
The Ayn Rand Problem
Which is why Ryan's previous infatuation with Ayn Rand now becomes something of a liability. Ayn Rand's virtue of selfishness and "religion is evil because it teaches people to love each other" is the exact opposite of what the GOP wants to project with Ryan. Yes, he's about fiscal sacrifice and short-term pain -- but only because he loves you and your children. It's not pain for pain's sake, but ripping off the bandage rather than prolonging the agony like Obama will. Rand, however, is totally about "it sucks to be you."
Mind you, conservatives only have themselves to blame. They raised guilt-by-association to a high art, and rendered it impossible to say 'X had some good ideas' without buying the whole package. Given Ryan's previous embrace of Rand, he's kinda stuck with the whole package.
Hence the "Oh, I am not really a Rand worshipper, where did anyone ever get that silly notion." But, sadly, there a fair amount of documentary evidence that Ryan enthusiastically embraced Rand. And under the Conservative Doctrine of Contamination, that means Ryan potentially gets stuck with the whole atheist, abortion-supporting, polyandrous, sucks-to-be-you package. Even if he doesn't get stuck with the whole package, he has the Romney flip-flop problem. Why did you love Rand until it became politically inconvenient?
Waiting for the Debates
Ignore the immediate hype. Certainly Ryan has "energized" the race when compared to its August doldrums. And, since The Base Wants To Believe, Ryan gives permission to conservatives who were still struggling with how they could support Romney to support him without feeling like total hypocrites. But it remains to be seen whether this effect carries beyond the base.
I continue to believe that a lot of people, even those who say they have made up their minds, are waiting for the debates. It will be the candidates at their most unfiltered. Ryan will probably do quite well, but at the end of the day Romney is going to have to win people over against Obama.