I keep reading smart people who say that Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate will produce the titanic clash of visions that we’ve supposedly all been waiting for. Ryan will fill in the grey zones of Romneyism, bolstering Romney’s ideological bona fides and bringing the ghost of Ayn Rand into the ring against the spectral tag team of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
Over the next three months, Democrats will do their best to produce that epic battle. In choosing Ryan, Romney appears willing to aide his opponents’ strategy.
Yet there is reason to be skeptical that Romney has just embraced a Manichean struggle. Romney’s campaign is emerging from two weeks of brutal scrutiny of his budget plan. After analyzing the plan on Romney’s own terms, the Tax Policy Center concluded it was “mathematically impossible.”
If Romney wants an epic clash of visions, he doesn’t need Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, on his ticket. He only needs to insert real numbers in his own plan, revealing that the only way to provide his upper-income tax cuts without exploding the national debt is to initiate a sharp retrenchment of government outlays that benefit middle-class and poor Americans. Romney chose not to do that either because he deems it political suicide or because he wants the details sufficiently vague that he can shake free of them if he’s elected president; most likely both.
His selection of Ryan doesn’t clarify that intentional muddle. A Romney plan that deliberately doesn’t add up is now complemented by a Ryan plan that deliberately doesn’t add up. As Ezra Klein explains here, Ryan’s plan assumes that the federal government will eventually shrink to the point that it consists of defense, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And Medicare would be drastically revised. (In essence, the U.S. government would at last be small enough for Grover Norquist to fulfill his dream of drowning it in a bathtub.)
Would a President Romney and a Republican Congress prove willing to inflict high levels of pain on the poor and middle class while further reducing historically low taxes on the wealthy? What of the Republican donors – the contractors and corporate welfare recipients – who feed so well at the federal trough? Do they passively watch their subsidies circle the bathtub drain? Does Mitch McConnell look like a man who wants to run the Senate for two years of ideological glory before surrendering power for a generation in an electoral backlash?
There are hints about such questions in Ryan’s own voting record. Ryan voted for George W. Bush’s deficit-financed tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and the similarly-financed wars. Democrats cite this as proof that Ryan has no more concern for deficits than any other Republican who amasses debt under Republican administrations and complains about it under Democratic administrations. But the key vote for Ryan, and arguably for the party itself, was the 2003 vote that reduced the Republican governing philosophy to a simple maxim: retain power at any cost.
Democrats had been attacking Republicans for protecting drug company profits at the expense of Medicare recipients who were struggling to pay for their drugs. As drug prices escalated, the attacks became more salient and the prospect that they would lead to sizable Republican campaign losses more likely. To neuter the attacks, Republicans passed their prescription drug bill, creating a new federal entitlement that eased the financial burden on seniors while securing drug industry profits at taxpayer expense, with the legislation’s cost – $62 billion in 2010 alone, 12 percent of the federal government's Medicare's costs – covered by the same device used in the Romney and Ryan tax plans: a magic asterisk promising that somehow the numbers would work out.
The vote was contentious, with many conservatives voting against it. Ryan voted in favor. In doing so, he announced that he was a player.
That flexible quality beneath the rigid exterior must have appealed to Romney. Given the liabilities Ryan brings to Romney’s campaign, what else could explain his choice? Why would Romney want to impale his campaign on the Ryan plan if he is unwilling to do so on the Romney plan?
Ryan may be among the worst possible choices for Romney’s campaign, but he is arguably the best possible choice should Romney succeed in avoiding a clash of visions and win the White House. In that case, Republicans will almost certainly control both houses of Congress as well as the White House. The appetite for fantasy – the will to believe the magic asterisks really work – will be enormous. Ryan, the conservative icon, is the ideal emissary to inform the party's true believers that not everyone in this large, pluralistic, complex nation wants to dismantle the federal government at this particular moment. When you wish upon a magic asterisk, not all your dreams come true.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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