When I interviewed Congressman Paul Ryan last May, I asked him if he had seen the HBO comedy series Veep. “It’s the show where the running joke is that the vice president never really gets to do anything important,” I added. Ryan rolled his eyes and shook his head disapprovingly at my stealth attempt to get him to talk about his prospects as a vice-presidential candidate, an issue of which he had long since tired. “I’m more of a fan of Homeland,” he answered.
On Veep, there’s a running joke whereby the vice president, played wickedly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, walks by her secretary every day and asks if the president has called. “No” is always the answer.
Yet this week, Ryan got a very important call that he didn’t seem to think was going to come. Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate will ensure that the campaign is focused on the big issues — debt, deficits, and health care — and not on pointless ephemera. Ryan is gaffe-proof, without a skeleton to be found. He promotes a positive vision of conservatism with a preternatural dexterity, boiling his complicated plans down to a contrast of visions: Do Americans want an opportunity society, or a European-style cradle-to-the-grave welfare state?
Yet Ryan wasn’t always enamored with Romney’s record. On the road last October, I asked him why he called Romney’s Massachusetts health plan “not that dissimilar to Obamacare,” and how he could walk that rhetoric back if Romney ended up as the nominee. He shrugged his shoulders, saying that he would simply indicate his disagreement with that specific policy, then accentuate the areas where he and Romney agreed. There were clearly enough other issues to bring the two together.
Whether the issues will bring Romney and Ryan together with the American voters is another matter. The most recent Ryan-authored House budget makes major (and necessary) reforms to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The budget doesn’t overhaul Social Security, but Ryan has proposed separate plans for that program, as well.
Even before anyone suspected Ryan would become an official part of the race, he was trying to affect it from the outside. “I think if [candidates] want to come up with their own plans, then great,” Ryan said last October. “But they can’t duck the big issues.” Ryan said he believed it’s important for a Republican not just to win in 2012, but to win by discussing entitlement reform so there’s a mandate for change when the new administration begins. “That’s a large part of the reason why we did what we did,” he added, referring to his budget that restructures entitlements for those currently 55 years of age or younger. “I thought it was important for us to get it out in 2011, so we had time to talk about it and digest it and get the country debating it.”
Naturally, in the upcoming elections, Democrats are going to try to hang Ryan’s budget on Romney, so it makes sense that Romney enlisted the guy who can best defend the entitlement changes therein. Ryan is a master salesman — he could sell a drowning man a bowling ball. But the notoriously bipolar public routinely indicates support for balanced budgets and spending cuts while most specific budget-reduction plans face stiff opposition.
A recent poll conducted in Wisconsin, a place that knows Ryan the best, showed that 60 percent of respondents favored allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire on people making over $250,000 per year. (15 percent of those respondents favored raising taxes on everyone.) While 82 percent said reducing the federal deficit was “extremely” or “very” important, 55 percent of the same respondents said they opposed cutting health-care spending to make deficit reduction possible.
Normally, any campaign whose path to victory involves educating voters about the benefits of bending the health-care cost curve downward is a campaign destined for failure. But if any elected official in America can sugarcoat the need to slow government’s growth, it is the man from Wisconsin whose wedding announcement noted he “does his own skinning and butchering and makes his own Polish sausage and bratwurst.”
On the day Paul Ryan was born in 1970, President Richard Nixon unveiled his record-setting $200.8 billion federal-budget proposal for the upcoming year — a budget that included a large increase in Social Security payments. That day, Ryan’s hometown paper, the Janesville Gazette, ran a cartoon mocking Nixon’s handling of the economy. The cartoon showed Nixon in the passenger seat of a car (labeled “The Economy”) dangling perilously off the side of a mountain, while telling the driver “now, put it in first gear and go ahead very slowly . . .”
Romney picked Ryan in 2012 because, once again, the president has driven the economy off a cliff. Ryan believes he has the answers to get it back on the road to prosperity, but has needed a venue to make his case. As of today, the nation is his stage.
— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.