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Entitlement Crisis Takes Center Stage
With Ryan on the ticket, look for a pointed debate on some pressing issues.

Representative Paul Ryan holds a copy of the Republican House budget in March 2012.

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Michael Barone

On the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk harbor, a coatless Mitt Romney named a tieless Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential nominee.

Romney’s choice was not much of a surprise after he told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Thursday that a “vision for the country, that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country” was what he was looking for in his vice president. He added, “I mean, I happen to believe this is a defining election for America, that we’re going to be voting for what kind of America we’re going to have.”

This arguably describes some of the others mentioned as possible nominees, but it clearly fits Ryan.

Ryan doesn’t fit some of the standard criteria for vice president. He hasn’t won a statewide election, held an executive position, or become well known nationally or even in much of Wisconsin.

But more than anyone else, more even than the putative presidential nominee (as impolite as it is to say), Ryan has set the course for the Republican party for the past three years, both on policy and in politics. From his post as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has made himself not only a plausible national nominee but also a formidable one by advancing and arguing for major changes in entitlement policy.

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He has argued consistently that entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — are on an unsustainable trajectory. Left alone, they threaten to crowd out necessary government spending and throttle the private sector.

Few public-policy experts, on the center-left as well as the right, disagree. But many politicians, certainly those in the Obama White House, shy away from confronting the entitlement crisis. Better to demagogue your way through one more election cycle and kick the can down the road.

What’s astonishing is that Ryan has persuaded his fellow Republicans to follow his lead. Almost all House and Senate Republicans have voted for his budget resolutions. And they have included his proposal to change Medicare, for those currently younger than 55, from the current fee-for-service system to premium support, in which recipients would choose from an array of insurers, with subsidies to low earners.

Republicans rallied to the Ryan plan during the nomination contest. Newt Gingrich was lambasted for calling Ryan’s budget “right-wing social engineering,” while Romney over time moved to embrace the basic elements of Ryan’s budget and Medicare reforms.

Ryan campaigned enthusiastically for Romney in the Wisconsin primary, and there was clearly a rapport between these two number crunchers. Romney would sometimes defer to Ryan to answer questions and made a point of staying in touch with him after clinching the nomination.

As a number cruncher, Romney surely recognizes that Ryan knows federal budget policy about as well as anyone. And the sometimes politically tone-deaf Romney must admire Ryan’s ability, honed in hundreds of town meetings in his marginal congressional district, to explain his stances in a way that wins over ordinary voters.

Naturally, Democrats have attacked the Ryan plan as gutting Medicare and have produced an ad that shows a Ryan look-alike shoving a wheelchair-bound granny over a cliff. They’re licking their chops at the prospect of running a Mediscare campaign against the Romney-Ryan ticket.

But it’s not clear that the Mediscare tactic will work when the issue gains great visibility, as it will from Ryan’s selection.

For Ryan and Romney can make the point — otherwise lost in the shuffle — that their plan would leave the current Medicare system in place for current recipients and those who are 55 or older. Those who have made plans based on the present program could continue to rely on it.

But they also can make the point that their reforms are necessary if Medicare is to be sustainable in the long run. Polls show that many voters younger than 55 doubt that they ever will get the Medicare and Social Security benefits they’ve been promised.

One more thing about Ryan, I think, appealed to Romney: He already has shown that he cannot be intimidated by the most eminent opponent. Watch the video of Ryan’s five-minute evisceration of Obamacare at the president’s Blair House meeting. You can tell that Obama didn’t like it one bit.

He’d better get used to it. Obama’s side is relying on trash-talking ads. Romney’s selection of Ryan shows he wants a debate on whether America should follow Obama on the road to a European-style welfare state.

— Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. © 2012 The Washington Examiner. Distributed by Creators.com



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