Among other “awesome news” about Paul Ryan, as my son would call it, we have learned that Mitt Romney’s running mate was voted prom king and “biggest brown noser” by his high school classmates. Obviously, he was destined for success in politics.
Let’s give the Wisconsin Republican a break on that dubious achievement award. Ryan was a good-looking athlete with good grades, an impressive list of club activities and enough popularity to be prom king. Of course, he had haters. It was high school, the cruelest time of life, perhaps second only to running for national office.
That’s the life Ryan faces as presidential candidate Romney’s running mate. It’s an odd marriage of convenience between the fiscally conservative Ryan, a darling of the tea party right, and Romney, a serial flip-flopper determined to prove his conservative credentials with his own party’s right wing.
That’s why Ryan’s choice brought glee to the right and relief to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign team. In picking Ryan, the deficit-hawk chairman of the House Budget Committee, Romney decided to start from the right and swing even farther right, farther from the moderate swing voters who bring victory in November. That’s an indication that he has not firmed up his base, even in August, right before the National Republican Convention. A similar situation led Sen. John McCain to choose the farther-right Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate four years ago, a decision that didn’t work out too well, except for Team Obama.
Now, at a time when Romney has been trying to make this election a referendum on Obama’s performance in office, Obama can run as a defender of popular but financially troubled government programs like Medicare, against Ryan, who has programs like Medicare in his deficit-cutting sights.
In other words, Ryan brings to the Romney campaign the tea party’s style of magical thinking, a blissfully simplistic, ideologically driven world view that seems to think candidates can win votes by promising to reduce popular government services.
Or, at least that’s the message that Team Obama can be expected to hammer again and again in its ad campaigns, speeches and sound bites. There’s no question that the financing of Medicare and Medicaid, which funds nursing home care and other health care for the poor, is not sustainable in their current form. But Ryan’s plans make the Romney-Ryan team so vulnerable to attack that even Romney was quick to say he didn’t entirely agree with it.
Put simply, Ryan’s plan, proposed in a partnership with Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, would provide a federal subsidy or “premium support” to people now aged 55 and younger to purchase private insurance instead of Medicare as we now know it, if they so choose. If they want a higher-priced plan, they must make up the difference. But if they find a lower cost plan, they can defray the excess to other medical costs.
Such a deal. The purpose, Ryan says, is to encourage people to shop around and provide an incentive for overall health care costs to go down. But what if health care costs rise faster than the size of the subsidy or “voucher,” as critics call it, which Ryan would peg to the cost of living? In fact, health care costs have been rising much faster than the cost of living and Ryan’s plan is vague about how it would slow that rise.
More immediate, from a political point of view, Ryan takes a third-rail issue, especially with seniors, and puts it in center stage. Even though his Medicare plan would not affect anyone now over age 55, a similar feature did not save President George W. Bush’s much less radical Social Security proposal a few years ago. The more Bush talked about it, the more Americans hated it. It died without getting anywhere near the floor of Congress.
Sure, services have to be paid for, but nobody enjoys doing that. As the late Sen. Russell B. Long, a Louisiana Democrat, used to wax poetically, “Don’t tax you/ Don’t tax me/ Tax that fellow/ Behind that tree.”
Today I would suggest a new political slogan is at work on Capitol Hill: Don’t tax you/ Don’t tax me/ Just make the voters/ Think everything’s free.