In an interview on March 22, two weeks before Mitt Romney would win the Wisconsin primary and effectively end the race for the Republican nomination, Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes asked about his embrace of Paul Ryan’s budget.
“One of the things that the White House is also focusing on is dropping everything that they have on the Paul Ryan budget plan – the Democrats, the media, the White House – all piling up on the Ryan budget plan,” Sykes said to Romney. “You have embraced that plan. You’ve endorsed that plan. The Democrats think that the Republicans have handed them a weapon because they’re now going to say that you conservative Republicans, you want to balance the budget on the backs of the frail, the elderly and the poor. How will you respond to that?”
Romney answered, first, by arguing that Democrats had not earned the moral authority to make such arguments. “Well, we’d love to see how they plan on reducing the deficit and balancing the budget,” he began. “So far, we’ve had – what? – three straight years without the Senate putting in place a budget? We have a president in the same party as the leaders in the Senate. Can’t they put together their plan? At least the Republicans first of all have put together a plan. So it strikes me that before the Democrats can attack Republicans for a plan they have to put one of their own out.”
Romney then turned to substance. “Secondly,” he said, “the Ryan plan does not balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the elderly. It instead preserves Medicare and preserves Social Security. It’s the president’s lack of plan and lack of proposals for Social Security and Medicare that threaten their long-term solvency. So we’re happy to debate on issues. The president will do everything in his power to try to hide from his record but we’re going to talk about issues and his record and I think that’s why he’s in tough shape right now.”
It was a clear and unequivocal defense of Ryan’s entitlement reforms. No hedging, no qualification. Romney didn’t challenge the assertion that he’d “embraced” and “endorsed” Ryan’s budget. Instead, he countered the attacks by pointing out that the Democrats have abdicated leadership on entitlements even as they drive us further and faster toward a debt crisis. (Ryan’s budget did not actually include Social Security reforms, but his previous reform blueprints have.)
We have thought about this interview more than once over the past few days, as Republicans – and others – have debated the wisdom of Romney choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate. While the prospect of a Romney-Ryan ticket has generated considerable enthusiasm among conservatives, it has also occasioned predictable hand wringing. The two main objections seem to be: 1) choosing Ryan would place the Ryan budget at the center of the presidential election for the final two months of the race; and, 2) adding Ryan would wreck Romney’s careful efforts to maintain a comfortable distance from Ryan’s entitlement reforms. The first point is true but not convincing. The second is false.
We’ll start with number two. Last weekend, Politico reported: "A senior Romney adviser told the traveling press corps late last week that Romney still does not agree with the Medicare cuts in the Ryan budget, a fact that would be explored at length if the Wisconsin congressman were to be on the ticket. He would end up discussing that budget plan rather frequently, a fight Democrats would be eager for." And, on Wednesday, a second article in Politico quoted Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio saying that while there were positives and negatives to choosing Ryan, “Romney has been very careful not to embrace the Medicare cuts in the Ryan budget.”
These claims are just wrong. Romney has praised Ryan’s budget without qualification. Furthermore, Romney's Medicare reform proposal is almost identical to the Ryan-Wyden plan, the latest version of Medicare reform from Ryan. Don’t take our word for it. Here is one rather authoritative analysis of Romney’s proposal, written in response to the question: “How is this different from the Ryan plan?” The answer: “Shortly after Mitt presented the proposal described here, Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Wyden introduced a bipartisan proposal that almost precisely mirror’s Mitt’s ideas.” That comes from the Romney for President website. Romney’s “senior adviser” might give it a look.
What of the first objection – that a Romney-Ryan ticket would place the Ryan budget at the center of the 2012 elections at precisely the time voters will be paying closest attention? Our answer: It' s too late to stop that from happening. And: So what?
The Ryan budget will be at the center of the 2012 election no matter whom Romney picks. Democratic strategist Joe Trippi told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that his party plans to spend much of October talking about the Ryan budget. Paul Begala, who is advising Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC, told the Huffington Post the same thing. This should surprise no one. Democrats have for months been calling Romney's plan the “Romney-Ryan” budget in their talking points. And Democratic candidates across the country have been demagoguing the Ryan budget for two years.
The demagoguery is predictable and lamentable. But it is in fact the case that the Ryan budget is, in a sense, the official Republican governing roadmap. After all, virtually all of the Republicans running for the party’s nomination endorsed it in some manner, and 97 percent of congressional Republicans have voted for one version of the Ryan budget or another. Republicans own the Ryan budget. And so does Mitt Romney.
The question, it seems to us, is not whether Republicans and their presidential nominee own the Ryan budget, but how they choose to talk about it. Republicans shouldn’t worry about having entitlement reform as part of the campaign debate; they should want it there. The 2012 campaign should be about leadership, and about the failure of Barack Obama to provide it on the big issues, including – especially – on entitlement reform, debt, and deficits. It’s no longer the case that talking about entitlements is fatal. Marco Rubio ran on entitlement reform and won decisively … in senior-rich Florida. The more Rubio talked about entitlement reform, in fact, the better he did, according the campaign’s internal tracking polls. Congressional Republicans voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Ryan budget twice and yet they are effectively tied with congressional Democrats on the generic ballot question.
A late-July Democracy Corps poll of likely voters in Republican-held battleground districts tested support for the Ryan plan. Voters were read a description of the plan – “what Republicans in Congress are saying about their budget” – and then asked whether they favored or opposed this budget plan.
“Our plan saves the country from a future of spending and debt by cutting an additional $5.3 trillion over the next ten years, bringing federal spending down the historic level of 20 percent as a share of the economy, and bringing deficits down by 2015. Our plan fixes the broken tax code by making it simple, fair and competitive, and eliminates special interest loopholes while lowering everyone’s rates to promote growth. Our plan repeals the Obama administration’s health care reform law and the Wall Street reform law, which cause uncertainty for job-creating businesses. Our plans strengthens Medicaid over the next decade by providing states greater flexibility to determine what is best for the people who live in their communities. Our plan will save Medicare for future generation by making smart reforms, giving future seniors the choice to purchase private plans or traditional Medicare.”
The results? Voters supported the plan 52-37.
This does not mean, of course, that voters will support the plan. Indeed, the authors of the Democracy Corps memo believe that Democratic attacks on the Ryan budget will bear fruit for the members of their party. Our point is not that campaigning on the Ryan plan is an easy winner, but rather that if Republicans can convince voters that the plan will do what they say it will do, voters are more than open to supporting it.
So Romney, and Republicans, will be running on the Romney-Ryan plan no matter what. Having Paul Ryan on the ticket may well make it easier to defend the plan convincingly. Ryan's pretty good at that. And it's hard to see how Ryan on the ticket could hurt. What would make things worse is if Romney tries to run away from the Ryan plan, whoever's on the ticket. Then Romney will have been for the Ryan plan before he turned against it.
It will be safer to tell the truth, and defend the Ryan plan. Mitt Romney said it well in his interview with Charlie Sykes:
“Our country is now in a very precarious position. We’re headed towards a Greece-like economic calamity. The debt that we’re piling on the next generation is unacceptable. Medicare and Social Security could ultimately be threatened by our fiscal irresponsibility and we can’t go on like this. And my conclusion is: It’s time to tell people the truth. And if they want to vote for something less than the truth, that’s their right. But I’ve got a campaign of telling people the truth and I believe the American people are ready for the truth and understand that all of the promises and the attacks and so forth that are part of the political process have to be pushed aside for the truth. And so my campaign’s about telling people we’ve got to cut back on our spending and finally live within our means or we could face economic calamity where what we’ve gone through over the last three years would look like a cakewalk.”
There are other VP picks under consideration who bring a lot to the ticket – especially, perhaps, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. We'd be very pleased to see either of them on the ticket. But if your campaign is "about telling people we’ve got to cut back on our spending and finally live within our means or we could face economic calamity," then there's an awfully strong case for picking Paul Ryan as your running mate.