We Don’t Need No Wonk

I’m as wonky as the next DC think-tanker, which is why I’m announcing today that I will not be forming a presidential exploratory committee. The presidency isn’t about wonkmanship. It’s about leadership. I never understood the notion that Mitch Daniels was going to be our savior. Is Daniels more charismatic than Pawlenty? Hardly. In addition to liking him because he was a DC think-tanker himself, Daniels’ supporters in the punditocracy wanted him because he understood the ins and outs of the federal budget. As a former OMB director, he was the ultimate wonk! Bad idea. From the early indications, anyway, Daniels has a bit of a rhetorical tin ear. It’s by no means certain that he would have swept the field before him once his bid moved from mere fantasy to reality.

The notion that Paul Ryan would be a savior for the GOP is also misplaced. Ryan is a great force for the Republicans, and I’d take a presidential bid by him very seriously. Nonetheless, Ryan lacks executive experience, which puts him at something of a disadvantage against the former governors in the field. More important, I don’t think Ryan’s brilliant command of the federal budget, or the details of his own alternative, are the keys to the next election.

It’s true that many Americans don’t yet understand that Medicare is a gigantic fiscal time-bomb destined to break the federal budget. The public still doesn’t realize that the choice to keep Medicare in its current form really doesn’t exist. That’s why ads that show a Ryan-like figure pushing granny off a cliff are effective.

But the solution to this problem is not only, or even mainly, wonky explanation–although there will have to be some of that for sure. As I’ve said before, the best defense of the Ryan plan is a good offense against Obama’s IPAB Medicare rationing board. My story on IPAB in the previous print issue of NATIONAL REVIEW, “The Acronym That Ate Health Care,” lays out a road-map for that attack. Unfortunately, Republicans still seem to be focused on defensive responses to the Democrats’ own attack ads, when not cowering paralyzed behind a rock, that is. Certainly, the Republican in yesterday’s special election in New York made no real effort to go after Obama’s Medicare rationing board, with disastrous results.

It’s not that we couldn’t use some creative pie charts to explain the overwhelming problem Medicare represents for the budget. But an aggressive attack on Obama’s Medicare rationing plans will actually do more to bring the central point across than wonky explanations. Once the public sees both parties going at each other for transforming Medicare, it will begin to dawn on folks that keeping the program as it is, is no choice at all. Then, the pie charts will really hit home.

So we don’t need a brilliant wonk to go out and defend the Ryan plan against nasty Democratic attacks. We need a proven leader to launch an effective assault on Obamacare’s Medicare rationing plans, and then draw the lesson that we need a better way to save a system that’s already headed over a cliff. As far as I’m concerned, Pawlenty, has made a great start at laying the groundwork for that task, telling Iowans hard truths about ethanol and Floridians hard truths about Social Security, thus earning the right to make a attack on the folly of Obamacare in a way that credibly opens the public to a legitimate alternative.

So if Ryan wants to get in the race, that’s just fine. But I don’t think we desperately need him, and I don’t think he’d automatically be the clear solution. What we need is a proven leader to aggressively take on Obama’s own frightening Medicare plans, and then put forward a defensible alternative.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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