Do I think Rep. Paul Ryan is a good vice presidential pick on substance? Absolutely—in fact, I can’t think of a better one. He’s among the very brightest Republicans in Washington today, with a strong philosophical core and a keen understanding of the fiscal issues that will determine our economic future. And, just as importantly, Ryan has the ability to explain and defend his views, speaking in terms of values as cogently as numbers. This GOP ticket is anything but the tongue-tied Republicans we’ve come to expect over the years. With Ryan and Gov. Romney, I no longer fear television interviews or a presidential debate.
But the political risks shouldn’t be underestimated. Many conservative commentators welcomed the Ryan pick, arguing that it will elevate the fundamental policy debate over the future of entitlements to the center of the election. They’re right on that, but unless you’ve been involved in an entitlement reform debate—I got more than my fill in President Bush’s 2005 push to fix Social Security—you may overestimate the American people’s desire for a thoughtful discussion.
The short story is that, no matter how unsustainable or inefficient our entitlement programs may be, the burden of proof is absolutely on the party that wants change. Back in 2005, we constantly asked our opponents, “Where’s your Social Security plan? When will you put something on the table.” Had they done that, President Bush’s plan would have appeared in a far better light. But Nancy Pelosi’s answer— literally, according to Time Magazine—was, “Never. Is that soon enough for you?” And guess what? She paid zero political price. The public doesn’t care if the other side doesn’t have a plan. They do care if your plan appears to threaten them.
That’s why the Romney campaign needs to come out strong. They need to point out that it was President Obama, not Romney, who cut $700 billion from Medicare to fund other priorities. Listening to Democrat Debbie Wasserman-Schultz on the Sunday shows, you’d think it was the other way around.
Next, Romney’s campaign needs to proactively head off false attacks on Ryan’s Medicare plan. Voters needs to know three things about Ryan’s Medicare reform proposal co-sponsored with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden. First, no one over the age of 55 would be affected in any way. Second, traditional Medicare fee-for-service would remain available for all. “Premium support”—that is, government funding of private insurance plans chosen by individuals—is an option for those who choose it. No senior would be forced out of the traditional Medicare program against his will. And third, overall funding for Medicare under the Ryan-Wyden plan is scheduled to grow at the same rate as under President Obama’s proposals. Is this “gutting Medicare” and “ending Medicare as we know it”? In reality, it’s the market giving seniors cheaper, higher quality choices they can take if they wish, with the traditional program remaining an option.
But the Romney campaign needs to hit these points early and often. Waiting to respond, as they too often did regarding the baseless and scurrilous attacks on Gov. Romney’s business record, wins them no points. The Romney campaign rightly expected a street fight, and in the primaries showed they can throw a punch as well as take one. But they might not have expected how quickly President Obama’s supporters would drag the campaign into the gutter. If Romney and Ryan are aggressive, they’ve got a good chance to win not only the election, but a mandate to put the federal budget on a sustainable track while reversing the slide toward ever-increasing government control over individuals’ lives. But these arguments won’t make themselves. Romney and Ryan need to be assertive.