Paul Ryan: Obama's Dream Opponent

UPDATED: Mitt Romney has selected Paul Ryan as his running mate.

As Beltway anticipation builds for Mitt Romney’s vice presidential announcement, conservative pundits have re-upped their calls for a “bold” and adventurous choice. This morning, the Wall Street Journal editorial page took the lead with a plea to add House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to the ticket.

The Journal acknowledges the appeal of VP frontrunners Tim Pawlenty and Rob Portman—working-class roots and high-level experience, respectively—but says that Ryan is the only politician with the gravitas and vision to campaign on a presidential level. Here’s the op-ed:

Too risky, goes the Beltway chorus. His selection would make Medicare and the House budget the issue, not the economy. The 42-year-old is too young, too wonky, too, you know, serious. Beneath it all you can hear the murmurs of the ultimate Washington insult—that Mr. Ryan is too dangerous because he thinks politics is about things that matter. That dude really believes in something, and we certainly can’t have that. […]

The case for Mr. Ryan is that he best exemplifies the nature and stakes of this election. More than any other politician, the House Budget Chairman has defined those stakes well as a generational choice about the role of government and whether America will once again become a growth economy or sink into interest-group dominated decline.

The Journal’s broader argument is that Romney can’t win if this election is fought over “small issues,” like Bain Capital or his taxes. The only way he can prevail, they argue, is if he turns this into a fight over big ideas. Placing Ryan on the ticket would go a long way to making that a reality—he is the architect of the Republican Party’s policy platform.

It’s hard to escape the impression that conservatives view Ryan as a consolation prize for the fact that their best chance for rolling back the welfare state resides in the former Massachusetts governor who gave Democrats the bluebrint for Obamacare. But Ryan would be a terrible choice, and if you aren’t ensconsed in the conservative movement, it’s easy to see why: Ryan’s plan—low taxes on the rich and higher defense spending, funded by sharp cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and most social programs—is wildly unpopular with the public.

Last year, the Washington Post and ABC News surveyed Americans on key elements of the Ryan plan. Would you support reforming Medicare such that beneficiaries “receive a check or voucher from the government each year for a fixed amount they can use to shop for their own private health insurance policy?" Sixty-five percent of respondents said they would oppose such a plan. If told that the cost of private insurance would eventually outpace the value of the voucher—projected under Ryan’s proposal—opposition rises to 80 percent.

The same goes for new tax cuts. By two-to-one (44 percent to 22 percent), according to the Pew Research Center, Americans say that cutting taxes for the rich would harm the economy. The same percentage says that raising taxes on the rich would make the tax system more fair than it currently is.

Both realities have already caused problems for Romney. He does as much as possible to obscure his support for the Ryan plan from the public, but most Americans identify him as someone who would help the rich over ordinary people. Putting Ryan on the ticket would exacerbate that problem, and give Obama a huge boost as he begins the second phase of his attacks on Romney.

Remember, the focus on Bain Capital—and Romney’s tax returns—are a means to a end: showing Romney as a heartless plutocrat who will use the presidency to enrich the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. That image will allow Obama to pin the Ryan plan on Romney, and to (accurately) present him as the avatar for selfish reactionaries.

Without Ryan on the ticket, this is a little difficult: The Ryan/Romney plan is an astoundingly right-wing proposal for the future of the country, so much so that voters refuse to believe that any politican would endorse it, much less make it the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. This was somewhat alleivated by the Tax Policy Center analysis—which shows the degree to which Romney would have to raise taxes on middle-class Americans to pay for his upper-income tax cuts—but would be simple to accomplish if Paul Ryan himself were the vice presidential nominee.

Already, with ads like the recent one from Priorities USA, Democrats are painting a picture of America under the Ryan/Romney plan: less mobility for most Americans, less security for middle-class families, and an explosion of income inequality. A Romney/Ryan campaign would allow Democrats to turn those attacks to eleven, and hammer the extent to which Republicans intend to transform government’s role in shaping our society.

Putting Paul Ryan on the ticket is the election-year equivalent of the Republican strategy on health care reform—high stakes, high reward. If the health-care strategy had worked, categorical opposition to reform would have blocked the law and destroyed Obama’s presidency. But it didn’t, and Democrats passed a health care bill that was more compehensive—and more liberal—than it would have been with Republican support.

A Romney/Ryan ticket could conceivably win, of course, and Republicans could then claim an ideological mandate for sweeping changes to the social contract. In all likelihood, though, Ryan’s vulnerabilities would weigh down the ticket and keep Romney from winning a critical number of undecided voters. By satisfying conservative cries for “substance,” Romney would all but condemn the GOP to four more years of an Obama presidency, allowing Democrats to entrench the major changes of the last three-and-a-half years (namely the Affordable Care Act) and gain a long-term upper hand.

Yes, it’s unsatisfying for ideologues, but for this election Republicans might want to stick to the small stuff, rather than risk it on a “statement.”

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