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Opinion

Romney's pick of Paul Ryan: Let the debate over substance begin

The presidential race has so far been shamefully dismissive of substance. With his pick of  House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, Republican Mitt Romney presents voters with a clear choice over the role of government and how to pay for it.

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Prepare, then, for a battle over the middle class. To tame the national debt, the Ryan plan steps on all the third rails of American politics: privatization of Social Security, sharp cuts and bloc-grants to the states for Medicaid (healthcare for the poor), vouchers for Medicare (healthcare for seniors), and reducing health-care costs by restricting the tax code. Discretionary spending takes deep cuts, too. Without radical measures, Ryan argues, robust job creation is unattainable.

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Even before Romney’s announcement, the Obama campaign was preparing to link the Republican nominee to Ryan’s plan, which it sees as lop-sided, draconian, and devastating to the middle class and the elderly.

Obama does not oppose deep cuts in government spending. The disagreement centers on how to pay for them and where to make them.

In the midst of the debt-ceiling standoff last year, Obama sought a mix of program cuts and tax increases on the wealthiest citizens. House Republicans rejected that approach, preferring to shrink the debt through spending cuts and, they argue, economic growth spurred by tax cuts.

Administrations and Congresses have tip-toed around entitlement reform for years. Until now, both campaigns seemed prepared to continue that trend. Obama has attacked Romney’s business record and undisclosed tax returns. Romney has charged the president with declaring a “war on religion.”

These are not inconsequential issues, per se, but at a time of global economic uncertainty, a creaking US recovery, and a looming debt reckoning, they have distracted from the fundamental issues of deficits, jobs, and climate change – which has serious economic repercussions as well as environmental ones. The public deserves an honest, robust debate about how the next administration and Congress will address these issues.

Don’t expect Ryan’s entry in the race to end the pettiness. There’s plenty of money on both sides for attack ads and distortions. But there is also an opportunity for both sides to reach higher. There are now two clear plans reflecting two distinct views on the role of government in the economy and the range or extent of its responsibility to the general welfare.

Monthly job reports will keep the focus on the economy as November approaches. In the weeks immediately following the election, one of the two tickets will have to squarely face the pending fiscal cliff of automatic tax increases and spending cuts due in January.

At the moment, polls are trending in Obama’s favor. He’s gotten traction from negative ads, though Romney ads have also been negative. A substantive contest of ideas would have the added benefit of clarifying for voters the approach to solving the urgent issues threatening the future.

Good for Romney for staking himself irrevocably to a clearly defined policy course. Even if he loses, his choice of running mate secures a legacy of sorts.  Voters have a referendum – and the Republican party has its future standard bearer.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.

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