Paul Ryan is probably a risky choice as Mitt Romney's running mate for vice-president.
Criticized for being timid on issues in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney responded by choosing Ryan. This was presumably intended to signal both a willingness to take on difficult economic issues and a shift to the ideological right.
Ryan wants to reverse the Republican reputation for fiscal profligacy since George W. Bush. Bush was left a balanced budget by Clinton in 2000, but added $4.8 trillion to the national debt during two terms in office. Ryan has an alternative to the Obama administration's own sea of red ink (which at current deficit levels would add $9.3 trillion in new debt after two full terms), based on fiscal discipline. Romney is now running with his small-government, "Obama punishes success; Romney creates it" message linked to Ryan's budget proposals.
Romney's choice is cheered by those who feel that he is opening a needed debate about America's fiscal future. Ryan is serious and substantive, a charismatic crusader, budget wonk and game-changer. However, his nomination is also polarizing because he's identified with large budget cuts, including ones to entitlement programs such as Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and even student loans. The Romney-Ryan ticket is seen by Democrats as an "ideological hit squad."
[ David Jones: Ryan's appeal to the Tea-Party right makes him a good choice ]
Ryan does propose tax reform, in part by replacing the present six different rates of income tax with two, but admits his plan would be revenue neutral. Tax increases, especially for the one per cent of Americans who currently take in approximately a quarter of national income and own about 40 per cent of their country's wealth, are probably more needed than deficit reductions. Ryan and Romney ignore this reality, which shrieks at many voters from both a social justice and sound economics standpoint.
Ryan's sweeping budget proposals include those written during the past two years while he was the House budget committee chair. They mix supply-side economics with an assault on the New Deal welfare state. To know what Republicans would likely do if they win in November, the person to understand is not Romney, but Ryan.
Ryan's latest proposal would cut federal spending by $5.3 trillion over a decade. Many specifics are left vague, but the plan would require deep cuts to essential programs such as air-traffic control, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI. Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled, would shrink by $800 billion over 10 years. Taxes on the wealthy and corporations would remain low, but unspecified loopholes would be closed. Unsurprisingly, defence spending would be largely spared.
Ryan's vision for Medicare, the government health-insurance program for retirees, would end federal reimbursements to health providers and provide seniors fixed amount vouchers to buy their own insurance from competing government-approved plans.
Ryan has previously favoured cuts to Social Security, the government safety-net program for retirees — even attempting to privatize it in 2004 — but his latest budget proposals don't include such tactics. He believes that lower taxes and smaller government will lead to greater overall prosperity. "Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first." Obama calls Ryan's vision "social Darwinism — a system that rewards the strong and abandons the needy."
In a speech, Obama responded:
... it paints a vision of our future that's deeply pessimistic. ... There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don't think there's anything courageous about asking for sacrifice for those who can least afford it.
One Democrat called Ryan's budget "an uncompromising right-wing Tea Party manifesto that provides big tax breaks to wealthy Americans at the expense of everyone and everything else." Obama has described the Romney-Ryan economic approach as "trickle down fairy dust."
Influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand and other libertarian ideas in his formative years, Ryan brings Romney some tactical benefits. He might put in play Wisconsin's ten electoral votes, for example, and his Catholicism might appeal to some swing voters. He also has major weaknesses. He's spent 14 years in Congress and has never run anything other than his House office. He lacks any foreign policy background.
On July 13th, Obama told a Virginia audience:
Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have allowed you to thrive. ... When we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
His comments ... derive from a naive vision ... based on an idea that the nucleus of society and the economy is government, not the people. Obama's big-government spending programs fail to restore jobs and growth and amount to a statist attack on free communities...(He) is trying to paint us as a caricature. ... As if we're some bizarre individualists who are hardcore libertarians. It's a false dichotomy.
Ryan will no doubt enliven Romney's campaign, but his budget plan might easily damage Romney's prospects for becoming President. Changing the game may not result in winning it, although political action groups and "super PACs" are planning to spend a billion dollars on the election to get Romney supporters to the polls.
David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.