As a budget hawk who has spent a good part of the last decade writing and speaking (sometimes yelling) about the “unsustainable” federal deficit, I think Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate could be exactly what is needed to turn this ugly, ad hominem election into an election fought over the greatest problem our nation has faced since the fall of the Soviet Union. For three reasons.
First, as Ryan has shown repeatedly, he has vast knowledge of the federal budget and can argue the particulars of his case. Budget hawks of both parties have been yearning for a national candidate who knows the budget issues in detail and talks about the deficit at every opportunity. If Ryan is allowed to continue in this vein, the Presidential election of 2012 could turn into a national seminar with the American people coming to understand as they never have before why we can’t go on accumulating annual trillion dollar deficits and remain a strong nation.
Second, Ryan has a budget plan. True, the plan is exceptionally controversial, especially in its solution for the relentlessly rising cost of health care that everyone agrees is the number one cause of our growing deficit. It will be a huge achievement if the nation, especially the elderly and near-elderly, come to understand that we must reduce the rate of growth in spending on health care or go bankrupt. Ryan’s advocacy for premium support has been a lightning rod for criticism, but some versions of premium support, the defining feature of which is to give recipients a fixed sum of money that increases every year to enter the market and purchase their own health insurance plan, have been endorsed by prominent Democrats such as Senator Wyden and Alice Rivlin.
Third, Ryan is an upbeat, positive guy who likes to stick to the issues. Even his criticisms of President Obama have been measured and are tied mostly to his failure to lead on the economy and the deficit. A presidential election might result in Ryan becoming an attack dog as so many other vice presidential candidates have been, but there is room to think that Ryan will avoid this temptation.
My fear is that Romney will find ways to back away from Ryan’s budget plan and his proposal for premium support in particular. No matter what Romney does, Democrats are going to roll out all their “Mediscare” tactics and try to make the elderly think Romney/Ryan have a plan to destroy Medicare. Expect to see lots of little old ladies with blue hair rolling off the cliff in their wheelchair. But if Romney and Ryan develop effective talks about how Americans today are passing the bill for their lack of spending discipline to their children and grandchildren, and especially if they develop hard-hitting commercials emphasizing that reducing spending cannot be avoided (featuring lots of crying babies getting handed the bill from their parents and grandparents), they can win this debate with millions of Americans.
The most important outcome of this election, regardless of which side wins, should be a spirited and fair debate about the threat posed to the nation by our lack of fiscal discipline and the disastrous consequences for the future of the nation if we don’t act now.