Paul Ryan seems to understand the importance of building consensus. Or seemed to. Speaking to the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza before he was named to the Republican ticket, Ryan said the collapse of President George W. Bush's Social Security privatization plan was not a result of bad policy, but of poor salesmanship.
"You've got to prepare the country for these things," Ryan said. "You can't just spring it on them after you win."
Ryan made a similar point during an April 10 meeting at Bloomberg View. Speaking of his plan to scale back entitlements, cut taxes on high earners and overhaul the welfare state, he said, “You need to do this in a way where you can give people advance notice, where people can have time to adjust and organize their lives accordingly.”
This is the kind of stark talk that made Ryan’s reputation as a straight shooter. Yet virtually every day, in every way since Mitt Romney selected Ryan as his running mate, the Romney-Ryan team has made a mockery of such frankness.
Last week, Romney promised to increase the deficit by $716 billion over 10 years by nullifying Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare providers -- cuts that were also contained in Ryan's plan. Gone were Ryan's bold calls for a new "social contract" and for reforming the “bankrupt” health and retirement security schemes of the 20th century. Instead, Romney cast Obama as the entitlement slasher and vowed to “preserve and protect” Medicare forevermore. Ryan, campaigning with his mother among retirees in Florida, called Medicare a “promise we have to keep.”
Essentially, the Republican ticket is offering to remake the governmental landscape without harming a blade of grass. The Republicans are promising to drastically reduce government revenue while preserving and protecting the most costly services that the government provides. This contradiction is what keeps Romney and Ryan from ever filling in the missing numbers in their plans.
President Barack Obama has offered no galvanizing response to the debt crisis, the topic that purportedly animates his opponents. But having cast Obama as a caretaker of decline, unwilling to make the tough choices a perilous moment demands, Romney and Ryan now march into their party's convention as tax cutters on the revenue side and protectors of the status quo on the spending side. Students of the presidency of George W. Bush will recognize the familiar contours, which turned a surplus into $5 trillion of debt under his administration.
If Romney and Ryan are offering a bold departure from the welfare state, now is their time to tell us. Otherwise, if their campaign succeeds in November, they will have earned a mandate to cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations and to protect government pensioners. Then what?
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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