Whatever happened to Paul Ryan? Before he was made Romney’s running mate in early August, he was billed by commentators as a free-thinking firebrand who would invigorate the campaign with his keen intellect and forensic argumentative skills. Evidence for Ryan’s game-changing capacity was based on his sweeping but failed budget reform measures, the “Roadmap for America’s Future” and “The Path to Prosperity,” on his reputation as the Republicans’ most gifted intellectual, and on his boast that his political inspirations were Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.”

Dan Balz summed up Ryan’s appeal in the Washington Post. He would “energize a conservative base that has been slow to warm to Romney” and “make the case for economic prescriptions that include sharp cuts in spending along with tax cuts and entitlement reform more passionately than anyone else.” By picking Ryan, Balz argued, Romney would sharpen the race by drawing “bright lines with the president.” For months Romney had coasted along on the assumption Obama would lose simply because unemployment is high and the economy is in the tank, but by midsummer the president remained firmly ahead. “We can’t just win by default, by beating up on Obama,” Ryan confided to Balz. What was needed was for voters to be offered a clear choice: Romney’s highway or Obama’s byway.

Stephen F. Hayes and William Kristol, of the Weekly Standard, urged Romney on. “Go bold, Mitt!” they yelled. “Pick Paul Ryan, the Republican party’s intellectual leader, the man who’s laid out the core of the post-Obama policy agenda . . .” The National Review’s Rich Lowry agreed. “It’s been a cardinal rule of Republican politics that it’s OK to talk about balancing the budget, so long as no one talks about touching the entitlements that drive the long-term debt,” he wrote. “Romney needs to make the case for his program, and perhaps no one is better suited to contribute to this effort than Ryan.” When Romney picked Ryan on Aug. 11, the Wall Street Journal celebrated. “Nearly everyone had expected Mitt Romney, the cautious technocrat and political calculator, to make the ‘safe’ pick,” its editorial board wrote. “In choosing Mr. Ryan, the Governor showed both a political daring as a candidate and a seriousness about governing if he wins.”

Yet since becoming Romney’s personal ambassador to the feisty GOP base, Ryan has fizzled. His big three contributions have hardly lived up to the promise invested in him by so many conservative big-wigs. His Tampa Convention speech was, well, conventional. In a marquee interview, he failed to convince Fox News’ Chris Wallace he had got his sums right on tax cuts. And he was eclipsed by Joe Biden’s grimacing in the vice presidential debate. Where are Ryan’s keynote speeches that tackle the big issues with devastating effect? Where the chapter and verse on how to find enough tax loopholes to stimulate the economy into creating 12 million new jobs over four years? Where the dazzling intellect we were told so much about?

Before the debate, Wallace had spotted something was amiss. “A number of top Republicans say that, when Romney picked you as his running mate a little over a month ago, that they thought that this indicated that you guys were going to run a bold reform agenda campaign,” he told Ryan. “And they are now expressing some frustration that instead of you changing Romney – you’ve heard this – that they feel that Romney is changing you.” Wallace quoted Scott Walker, the strike-breaking governor of Wisconsin. “I just haven’t seen that kind of passion” from Ryan, Walker complained, blaming it on “pushback from some of the folks in the national campaign.”