What Paul Ryan Adds to the Romney Ticket

“There are a lot of people in the other party who might disagree with Paul Ryan.  I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t respect his character and judgment.”  Late last night there was almost universal buzz that Governor Romney had decided on Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate for this year’s Presidential Election.  This morning he made the announcement in the Navy town of Norfolk, Virginia, in front of the battleship USS Wisconsin.

The Democrats, from the President on down through the Congressional trenches, have met the prospect of a Romney-Ryan ticket with relish.  They see in Congressman Ryan an embodiment of exactly the kind of policies they are trying to defend the country against.  Indeed, Paul Ryan’s rather-naive plan for Medicare, dubbed “Ryancare” by Democrats, will probably continue to be a liability not just for Congressional Republicans but for Governor Romney as well.  Paul Ryan’s 2011 proposal, simply, was to replace Medicare’s traditional defined-benefit program of Federal funding for a variety of medical services for the elderly with a voucher to buy insurance that would grow on an annual basis of GDP growth plus 1%.  Because this growth rate would be well behind the rate of medical services inflation (which is a rapidly-growing share of our overall economy), the value of this voucher would steadily decline over time.  Ryancare would go into implementation in 2022 for new Medicare beneficiaries that year; the Congressional Budget Office found that in 10 years the dollar value of Medicare benefits would be only 38% of what they would have been under traditional Medicare.  Republicans took this as proof that Ryan’s plan would control Medicare’s rapidly-ballooning costs; Democrats took this as proof that Ryan’s plan would gut an immensely-popular entitlement.  (Oh, and let’s not ignore the fact that Congressman Ryan was proposing putting all new Medicare enrollees starting in 2022 into private health insurance plans at the same time that he was proposing repealing President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.  Thus, he proposed funneling all Medicare funds to insurance companies that would retain the right to deny senior citizens policy coverage for “pre-existing conditions,” of which they would have many.)  Polls have consistently shown that Ryan’s proposal was very unpopular with the public; in fact, a special election in a very-Conservative upstate New York Congressional District was apparently lost to Republicans last spring for this reason alone.

Ryan’s proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act (which he shares with almost all Republicans) may be aimless, his proposal to limit and block-grant Medicaid spending to States may be bad, and his proposal to shift future Medicare enrollees into private insurance plans may be worse, but no one can deny that he is a serious policy wonk, about as intellectual and policy-oriented as any Congressional Republican.  When Governor Romney introduced him, he focused on the Congressman’s character and judgment.  Character and judgment are things the Republican Party could use more of today.  During the 2008 Republican National Convention, then Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin denied she was a career politician (She isn’t a good career politician) then in the next breath sneered at then-Senator Obama for having once been a community organizer; Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle suggested armed violence against the government might solve Americans’ problems; Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who is a doctor and rich, said that making doctors comply with Federal health care entitlements (which pay part of his salary) amounts to “slavery;” Texas Governor Rick Perry implied that if Chairman Ben Bernanke ordered the Federal Reserve to print more money, he would be subjected to vigilante justice if he visited Texas.  Finally and most-deplorably, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, each once the front-runner in the Republican Presidential nominating contest, both said they could not appoint a Muslim to serve in the Cabinet because American Muslims’ loyalties were in question; Congresswoman Michele Bachmann recently alleged that 1 of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Muslim employees is a radical Islamist in a conspiracy theory that even received a sharp rebuke from Senator McCain (R-AZ).  Through all of this, Congressman Paul Ryan has remained focused on his “Path to Prosperity,” a right-wing document to be sure, but a document–not a screed, not a conspiracy theory, but a budget plan.

Ryan Lizza has written a fair account of Governor Romney’s running mate for the New Yorker.  For those of you not familiar with him, he has been the Republicans’ most-important idea man since early 2010.  I don’t share his principles, but he is not mean-spirited and he is not a fanatic.  His proposals often have not been as detailed as his champions claim, but when so many in his party have just issued nihilistic refutations of everything President Obama has done, Congressman Ryan has actually offered a program, saying “This is how I propose we remake our government and change our society.”  As a Democrat I acknowledge a Romney-Ryan ticket as a worthy adversary for such an important election.

Congressman Ryan is as vulnerable to the charge that he doesn’t appreciate the struggles of ordinary Americans as Governor Romney is.  While he is unlikely to make gaffes to the effect of “I love American cars–my wife has several Cadillacs!” or “Sure, NASCAR is great–I’m friends with some franchise-owners!” Ryan does come from a wealthy and influential family in Janesville, WI.  While he is undeniably hard-working, like Governor Romney he doesn’t have personal experience of deprivation.  They are both self-made men who enjoyed every opportunity as a birthright–hard-working aristocrats.  Ryan seems to be an un-self-conscious one.

Expect the Democrats–not just President Obama, but the Democrats–to hit the Romney-Ryan ticket hard on this narrowness of perspective.  This campaign will probably reveal just how nasty an election over matters of principle can be.  The Republican ticket will accuse the President of frittering away our fortune to make this country like Europe, and the President and the Democratic Party will accuse their challengers (and now, the Republican Party generally) of financially undermining senior citizens, the poor, women and an increasingly-insecure middle class to make it easier for the rich to stash more money overseas.  (Well, actually, that looks like an objective statement to me.)  Even the word “opportunity” means something different to the incumbent and the challenger in this election.  With Paul Ryan on Romney’s ticket, the Romney campaign has chosen to take the high road in proposing policies without much gimmickry–but it has promised to remake the Federal Government in a very-Conservative form as well.  What Romney and Ryan are proposing is a “not-since-Fraklin-Roosevelt” re-sizing and reshaping of the Federal Government, and unlike Roosevelt’s realignment this one will not emphasize income security and national infrastructure development.

If I were to try to read Romney’s thinking into this decision–which apparently was made, with great campaign discipline, on August 1st–I would have to say it is an act of desperation.  By “desperation” I don’t mean to say that Ryan is a weak Vice Presidential choice or that it was an imprudent decision, but that it is what we in political science call a “gamble for resurrection.”  If a political actor believes the end of his career is in prospect (look to Bashar al-Assad in Syria right now for an extreme version of the same situation), the usual reasons to avoid a high-risk high-reward gesture become less-relevant.  Governor Romney has chosen to double-down and go for broke (as his Presidential wager has consistently left him behind in the polls in almost every swing State).  Paul Ryan can renew the enthusiasm of the right, and perhaps revive Republican electoral efforts in Blue Wisconsin.   Governor Romney has chosen to go deep rather than wide to get to an Electoral College majority.  Shooting from the hip I’d say I don’t think it will hold up under Democratic criticism, but Paul Ryan must not be underestimated.  He is serious about his plan, and he is serious about winning this election.

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