Which side is winning the battle to define Paul Ryan?
So far, polls show little to no bounce for Mitt Romney since he named Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. The wisdom of adding Ryan to the ticket could be decided by how well he and Romney resolve their unsettled message on Medicare.
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“Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan plan to end Medicare as we know it,” screams the headline on a Youtube video posted by the Obama campaign on Aug. 15. That just about sums up the critique of Ryan so far: nice guy, but watch your pocketbook.Skip to next paragraph
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Add to the conversation a discussion of the Ayn Rand-ian philosophy that Ryan explored while in high school as he coped with the death of his father. Some of the Russian emigré novelist’s “objectivist” views – particularly the emphasis on self-reliance – influenced Ryan’s outlook, though he rejected her atheism.
But it’s the future of Medicare – the federal government’s health insurance program for seniors that is heading toward insolvency – that dominates the conversation about Ryan, for now. For Americans currently under age 55, he proposes to remake the program into a voucher-like system, while also offering traditional fee-for-service Medicare as an option.
Ryan says his approach encourages more competition among insurers and makes the system more efficient. Democrats say the reform would underfund health care for seniors.
Proponents of Ryan’s selection as running mate argued that because the campaign was going to be about entitlement programs anyway, Romney should put the author of the Republican plan out there to explain it. For now, the choice has created some awkward moments, as Romney has said his plan differs from Ryan but has yet to release the details.
Ryan's selection has also produced some internal fireworks among Republican leaders. Blind quotes in the media raising concerns that the Ryan pick could bomb have been met with derision from Ryan’s champions, including The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which called the worriers “bed-wetters.”
It’s not clear how much rank-and-file voters pay attention to inside-the-Beltway chatter. But for now, the jury is out as to which way the Ryan selection will go.
“We’ll know whether it was the right decision at the end of the vice presidential debate” in October, says Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist. “If Ryan spends more time talking about Medicare than [Vice President] Joe Biden does, then it was worth the risk. If Biden talks more about Medicare than Ryan does, then it probably didn’t pay off.”
Mr. Schnur and other Republicans say there’s still time for Ryan and Romney to get their talking points straight on Medicare. But the GOP ticket can’t spend the whole campaign talking about it. The larger point about Medicare and the other big entitlements – Social Security and Medicaid – is that they need to be put on a path to sustainability. Continued large federal deficits, which add to the already crushing national debt, are increasingly harmful to economic growth, Republicans say.
But starting the campaign with a discussion of entitlement reform instead of the current economy and job creation contains political risk.
“It’s a risk based on the assumption that you can make voters think about economic growth,” Schnur says. “You have to think about deficit reduction as an essential part of economic growth. ... Every 10 years or so, Republicans decide the American people are ready for a difficult conversation about entitlements. And every 10 years, the American people demonstrate that they’re not.”
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