Will Romney's veep choice help focus the rhetoric on 'big issues?'

There has been a lot of (hopeful) talk in the past week that Romney's choice of Paul Ryan, a so-called "thinker" in the Republican party, will lead to more substantive debate. But Robert Reich thinks Romney’s choice won’t usher in a “real debate” about much of anything.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks with the press during a flight to Hyannis-Barnstable Municipal airport for fundraising events on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2012, in Hyannis, Mass. But will the tenor and focus of the debate change, now that Paul Ryan has joined the ticket?

I keep hearing that Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan “enables the country to have the debate it needs to have,” or “permits us to have a grownup discussion,” or “finally presents America with a real choice.” The New York Times oped page proclaims: “Let the Real Debate Begin!”

Debate? What debate? 

Romney isn’t even standing by Ryan’s budget plan. He’s been distancing himself from it from the moment he tabbed Ryan for the ticket.  “I’m the one running for President,” he keeps saying in response to reporters’ questions about whether he agrees with Ryan.

Not even Ryan will say publicly what the Romney economic plan entails. “We haven’t run the numbers yet,” he repeats – as if there were numbers in the Romney plan to run. But the numbers in Romney’s plan are like the numbers in Romney’s tax returns — they’re invisible to anyone who might have an interest in knowing. 

But even if Romney were to adopt Ryan’s budget plan intact we still wouldn’t have a real debate because Ryan’s own plan itself lacks specifics that add up.

None of the budgets Ryan has come up with as chair of the House Budget Committee indicate which tax loopholes he’d close and exactly which programs for lower-income Americans he’d eliminate in order to balance the budget.

Ryan claims that his revenue targets can be met by “broadening the tax base,” but he hasn’t said how he’d do it.  He’s insisted on keeping two of the biggest loopholes that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy —the preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

In fact, Ryan’s budget is larded with so much defense spending and so many tax cuts for the wealthy that it doesn’t even lower the debt — when exposed to realistic assumptions. 

It baldly assumes that tax cuts for the rich will generate revenues totaling 18.4 percent of the economy over the next decade. That’s supply-side nonsense. When the non-partisan Tax Policy Centerlooked at Ryan’s budget plan, it calculated that revenues would average only 16.3 percent over the decade — $4 trillion less.

Under that revenue estimate, Ryan’s budget would increase debt as a share of the economy for more than four decades – pushing the public debt to over 175 percent of GDP by 2050.

We can’t even have a clear debate about programs like Medicare, because Romney and Ryan seem determined to sow as much confusion as possible about their proposed voucher system. (At least Romney says his own approach to Medicare is “almost identical” to Ryan’s.)

They’ve been charging all week that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act “robs” Medicare of more than $700 billion over the next decade. In reality, the Romney-Ryan plan saves exactly the same amount. But it does so by shifting costs to seniors whose vouchers won’t keep up with the projected cost of health care. Obama’s savings come from reduced payments to medical providers.

What’s really driving Medicare costs – as well as future federal budget deficits – is the increasing costs of health care overall, combined with aging boomers. But don’t expect a debate over how to reign in healthcare costs because Romney and Ryan haven’t put forward a healthcare plan. All they want to do is repeal the Affordable Care Act, leaving 50 million Americans without health insurance coverage.

We won’t have a clear debate over whether to raise tax rates on the wealthy because Romney and Ryan are sticking to the conservative bromide that the wealthy and big corporations need more tax cuts in order to create jobs – even though America’s top earners are now taking home more of the nation’s income than they have in eighty years, and corporations are sitting on more than a trillion dollars of cash they don’t know what to do with.

We won’t even have a debate over how to prevent another meltdown of Wall Street or a taxpayer bailout of “too-big-to-fail” banks because Romney and Ryan don’t have a plan for preventing another Wall Street crisis. All they want to do is repeal the Dodd-Frank act.

Romney’s choice of Ryan won’t usher in a “real debate” about much of anything except, perhaps, the danger to our democracy of billionaires like casino-magnate Sheldon Adelson (whose blessing Ryan immediately sought this week) who are pouring tens of millions of dollars into negative advertising. (Adelson alone has committed $100 million of his fortune.)

Those negative ads, by the way, are making it all the harder for average Americans to sort out the truth from well-financed big lies – and understand, let alone debate, the big issues this election year.

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