August 12, 2012 6:54 pm

A principled but doomed running mate

Ryan represents a big step in the direction of conservative honesty, writes Jacob Weisberg

Introducing his running mate against the backdrop of the USS Wisconsin on Saturday, Mitt Romney flubbed his easiest line: “Join me in welcoming the next president of the United States.” There is no way to avoid reading this as a Freudian slip. Mr Romney’s chief problem as a candidate has been his substantive vacuity, his failure to stand for much beyond flexibility itself. In choosing Paul Ryan, he opted to outsource the content of his campaign to his opposite: a principled, conservative ideas man. Mr Ryan is now the head of the Republican ticket, Mr Romney the body.

Given the options he had left himself, this was probably the best choice for Mr Romney to make. Mr Ryan stands for a clear proposition – the radical scaling back of the federal government’s social commitments – and through his pick, Mr Romney now represents that as well. Usually, a vice-presidential candidate scrambles to fall into line with the top of the ticket. In this case, it is Mr Romney who will, not for the first time, adjust his views. Instead of attacking Barack Obama for cutting Medicare, Mr Romney must now charge him, as Mr Ryan does, with not cutting it enough.

Curiously, both conservatives and liberals profess to be pleased with the choice – the former because Mr Ryan represents their beliefs and the latter because he offers clear positions that they can challenge. Though both cannot be right about the political impact of the selection, the campaign itself will benefit from Mr Romney’s choice. Mr Ryan’s presence on the ticket makes this a better and more interesting election. It forces the debate the country needs to have about entitlement spending and ensures that the remaining months will be more than an argument about whose negative ads are more disgusting.

It is hard to see it, however, as improving Republican chances. Until now, Mr Romney has been a poor candidate running a clumsy campaign, which pointed towards losing a winnable race. Mr Ryan changes that narrative, but only by reframing the election the way Mr Obama’s team wishes to, as a choice between two visions of the social contract as opposed to a referendum on Mr Obama’s economic performance. Instead of teasing out the implications of Mr Romney’s tax cuts, Mr Obama can now directly challenge Mr Ryan’s stated positions in favour of privatising social security and turning Medicare into a voucher programme. Florida, a must-win state for Mr Romney, just moved closer to Mr Obama’s column.

A valid critique of the plan Mr Ryan developed as chairman of the House Budget Committee is that while it may be a useful document to start a conversation, it is utterly unrealistic as a matter of policy. The original version would reduce federal “discretionary” spending to 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2050 – far less than the US now spends on defence alone. This is a preposterous target, a symptom of the Republican refusal to acknowledge that federal government has legitimate, vital functions and that fiscal balance cannot be attained without higher taxes.

Another fair criticism of Mr Ryan, somewhat at odds with the first, is that while he may be a devotee of Ayn Rand, he has voted more like a Republican hack than a revolutionary. In Congress, he has sought federal funds for his Wisconsin district and supported the most egregious Bush spending programmes, such as the Medicare prescription drug plan. While positioning himself as a deficit hawk, he failed to embrace the report of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, on which he sat.

Yet Mr Ryan is neither the heartless ideologue nor the humbug liberal critics have made him out to be. He is, rather, a conviction politician who has moved his party far more than it has moved him. Getting the House to pass his budget this year – thus putting the GOP on record in favour of ending Medicare as an entitlement – was a stunning accomplishment. It puts an end to the Republican attempt to have it both ways, calling for less government in theory while voting for more in practice. It puts the onus on Democrats to say how else they would restrain a programme that is growing to consume the entire federal budget.

In their efforts to portray him as simply a factotum for the rich, Mr Ryan’s opponents frequently ignore what he has to say. For instance, Mr Ryan’s budget was widely criticised for finding savings from the elimination of tax deductions without naming any to eliminate. But when I questioned Mr Ryan about this at a breakfast with journalists a few months ago, his answer was both clear and sensible: he would means-test all tax deductions, including the big ones for mortgage-interest and charitable contributions. This is a sound way to extract more taxes from the wealthy, without raising marginal rates. If he did not spell it out in his budget outline, it is because he has yet to develop a consensus around the idea inside the Republican caucus.

In the event of a Republican victory, Mr Ryan would be as dominant a figure on economic policy as Dick Cheney was on foreign policy under George W. Bush. He understands the hard choices ahead and has a coherent view of how to make them. His selection represents a big step in the direction of conservative honesty – and probably, for that reason, toward Republican defeat.

The writer is chairman of the Slate Group

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