No candidate is better positioned to educate the country about its looming entitlement crisis.
There can be little doubt that the addition of Paul Ryan to Mitt Romney's presidential ticket has galvanized Republicans in a way that Romney himself has mostly failed to do. The $3.5 million fundraising haul that the Romney campaign reported within 24 hours of the vice presidential announcement is testimony to the enthusiastic approval of the GOP base. But whether Ryan will be an asset in the general election will depend on his ability to rally Americans to the cause of entitlement reform and economic growth just as he has his Republican admirers.
One problem with the Ryan pick is that, improbable as it may seem to political junkies, he is an unknown quantity for much of the country. Polls show that a majority of Americans know little about the Wisconsin Congressman. Polls also show that most people are unfamiliar with the budget reform proposals that have made him a hero on the right and a hate figure on the left. Of those who have heard about Ryan's reforms, a majority is confused about how they would work. The hopeful notion that Ryan can transmit some of his intra-conservative star power to the Romney campaign thus runs afoul of the hard truth that much of the country is clueless about who he is.
A related problem is that the public does not really understand the importance of the issues – government spending generally and the runway government spending on entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security specifically – on which Ryan has made his reputation in the Republican Party. While Americans routinely overestimate how much the federal government spends on foreign aid, they just as often underestimate how much it spends domestically. For instance, a CBS poll in 2011 found that less than a quarter of the public knew that Medicare and Medicaid take up nearly 20 to 30 percent of federal spending. Similarly, nearly half the country underestimates the size of Social Security spending. Given that Ryan's signature policy agenda calls for restructuring these programs, for instance by reducing the government's role in their provision through competition and consumer choice, the fact that much of the country does not recognize the threat to their long-term solvency makes that agenda a more difficult sell nationally.
The good news for the Romney campaign is that few are better positioned than Paul Ryan to explain the gravity of these issues and to make the case for reform over the status quo. A lifelong policy wonk who started reading federal budgets in high school, Ryan has not only a broad understanding of federal spending policies and their budget impact but also a unique ability to communicate the need for reforming government spending in a way that is coherent, accessible, and rich in supporting evidence. His 2010 "Roadmap for America's Future," an ambitious budget proposal for reforming entitlement programs and reigning in the national debt, has been the most influential factor in forcing Republicans to make these issues a top legislative priority over the past several years. Among them was Mitt Romney, who hailed Ryan's plan as "marvelous." Adding Ryan to the ticket makes that policy connection explicit.
That is not without its political perils. By stepping up to tackle the politically fraught issue of entitlement spending, Ryan has long opened himself up to demagoguery from the Obama campaign and its surrogates. Now the Romney campaign will bear the brunt of those attacks. To be sure, this would not require a rhetorical shift by the Obama campaign. The president's smear corps has spent the past few months demonizing Romney as a ruthless capitalist who would protect the rich while gutting the safety net for the middle class, an appeal that at its most despicable essentially accused Romney of murder. Having been the target of similarly invidious attacks in the past – including one ad showing a Ryan lookalike pushing an old woman in a wheelchair off a cliff – Ryan is well prepared to weather the coming onslaught. He has to be, because his unveiling has already inspired a new wave of Democratic attacks casting Romney and Ryan as enemies of the middle class who would cut taxes for the rich and “end Medicare as we know it.”
Democrats have been gleeful about the prospect of such attacks, but they pose risks of their own. The president and his party may deny it, but there is little doubt that entitlements are a major threat to the country’s economic prosperity. Together, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are the biggest drivers of long-term national debt. According to the Congressional Budget Office, spending on these programs will surge to 17 percent of GDP in 2035 from around 10 percent of GDP today. As CNNMoney.com's Jean Sahadi points out, that means that the federal government will be spending on these three programs roughly the equivalent on what it has been spending for everything in the federal budget except interest in recent decades. In short, these programs are becoming unsustainable and nothing short of meaningful reform – not forcing the rich to pay even more in taxes, not eliminating earmarks, not trimming government waste – will contain the debt that they will pile up in the years ahead.
Against this background, it is the Obama administration’s adamant refusal to deal with entitlement spending, rather than Ryan’s plan for reforming it, that looks truly radical. Whether his addition to the Romney campaign ultimately will be a success will hinge in large part on Ryan’s ability to help the public that is meeting him for the first time see the stakes in the same way.
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