Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Phenom

Mitt Romney's running mate was doing what he likes best: wonking out. "I'm kind of a powerpoint guy, so I hope you'll bear with me," Paul Ryan told about 2,000 people at the University of Central Florida gymnasium in Orlando in late September. The two giant screens flanking the stage flashed a rising red line--the U.S.'s current path toward fiscal Armageddon. "This is worse than Europe," he said. "We can't keep spending money we don't have." The next slide showed the flags of foreign countries, including China, that hold U.S. debt. "You lose your sovereignty," he said. "You lose your independence." Heads nodded.
But it was the slide Ryan left out of his presentation that may have said the most. Though he had promised the crowd "specific ideas, specific solutions," he actually didn't detail his plans to tackle the nation's $15 trillion debt. And his presentation, typical of Ryan as he stumps for the GOP ticket this fall, made no mention of his signature idea, adopted by Romney, to overhaul that beloved entitlement program for seniors, Medicare, and limit its growth. 

(PHOTOS: Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin)
It took a question from the crowd to get the wonk talking specifics. Democrats, warned a silver-haired man, were attacking Ryan's Medicare plan. "They've been trying to intimidate us retirees down here," he said. Though Ryan's plan wouldn't affect people currently 55 or older, he said, many seniors were nonetheless fearful about their benefits. "We need to get that message," the man urged, "out loud and clear."
"You can help us by getting the truth out," Ryan replied from the stage. Barack Obama, he said, is running "a campaign of division and distortion ... And nowhere is that more clear than on the issue of Medicare." Ryan went on to argue that Obama has passed his own cuts to the program and that the Ryan-Romney approach would involve "choice and competition."
The Republican crowd cheered. But the questioner had identified a threat to the GOP ticket in swing states like Florida. Recent polling shows Democrats winning the argument over Medicare, which many voters now call second in importance only to the economy. Romney's choice of Ryan in August "added a new issue to the agenda," says Robert Blendon, who tracks health care opinion at the Harvard School of Public Health. "And the issue is a negative one for the Romney-Ryan team." 

(PHOTOS: Paul Ryan: All Pumped Up For His Closeup)
With roughly three weeks left in a long campaign, Romney is feeling the calculated risk he took when he chose Ryan to be his running mate on Aug. 11. The selection thrilled conservatives eager for a bold campaign about entitlements and the size of government, but party strategists warned that he was inviting a savage Democratic "Mediscare" campaign of the sort Ryan's questioner warned him about. Two months later, the strategists are looking prescient. That may be why Romney and Ryan have spent little time promoting a vision of dramatic spending-and-entitlement cuts, maintaining a sharp focus on unemployment and a grab bag of Obama vulnerabilities from Middle East unrest to energy policy. Once famous for his long policy seminars, Ryan has steered clear of specifics. Whereas his predecessor, Sarah Palin, famously went rogue, Ryan has gone vague. 

(VIDEO: Paul Ryan Addresses the Republican National Convention)
And yet what few predicted was Ryan's skill as a campaigner. He has proved to be a kind of boy wonder, bringing youth and spirit to the ticket and firing up a sometimes lackluster Romney at their joint campaign events. "There's obvious energy when they're together," says one campaign aide. Ryan is even keeping the race close in his Democratic-leaning home state of Wisconsin. As Election Day approaches, a new reality has begun to emerge: Ryan may have been a smart pick for Romney despite his policy positions, not because of them.
Running on, and Away from, Medicare
Vice Presidential nominees rarely shape the course of a campaign. But Romney's selection of a Congressman famous for budget blueprints so austere that President Obama called them "social Darwinism" stirred unusual passions from the start. The Obama campaign called Ryan "radical" and "extreme," while conservatives saw something closer to deliverance and geared up for an epic clash of policy visions. "In choosing Mr. Ryan, Mr. Romney is betting that Americans ... will reward the candidate who pays them the compliment of offering solutions that match the magnitude of the problems," applauded the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page. 

(MORE: Biden vs. Ryan: What to Watch For in the Debate)
Ryan's most significant solution to the debt mess is his plan to overhaul Medicare, a program that--thanks to aging baby boomers, growing life expectancy and rising health care costs--is the fiscal equivalent of an open fire hydrant. His plan would try to contain those costs, which threaten to cripple the federal government with debt, by replacing the program's virtually unlimited reimbursements to physicians with fixed payments to seniors to buy health care. Democrats protest that these "vouchers," as they call them, will lag behind rising health care costs, leaving all but wealthy seniors unable to keep up. Not so, says Ryan, who promises that the plan will drive down overall costs by introducing private-sector competition and giving Medicare patients an incentive to pay attention to what their care costs. (Unlike earlier versions Ryan authored, it will also allow seniors to stay in traditional Medicare, although Democrats say the other changes will badly undermine the core program.)
At first, Romney seemed to embrace the challenge of having a budget cutter like Ryan on the ticket. "Medicare's one of those [things] that's very important to talk about," he said days after tapping Ryan. "We want this debate," Ryan said in Ohio. "We need this debate. And we will win this debate." 

(MORE: The Big Idea Guy
But that debate hasn't really happened. In his hard-edged Republican Convention speech, for instance, Ryan assaulted Obama's record but boiled down his proposal to avert a national fiscal crisis to platitudes: "A Romney-Ryan Administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my mom's generation, for my generation and for my kids and yours," Ryan said. He made no mention of reforming the program to limit its costs. Instead, both Romney and Ryan have gone on the attack, portraying Obama as the real enemy of Medicare. "The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we're going to stop it," Ryan said in Tampa. Likewise, Romney's only mention of the program at the convention was a similar shot at Obama's Affordable Care Act. There's sound political logic here: Republican attacks on Obamacare's $716 billion in cuts to Medicare providers played a starring role in the GOP's 2010 midterm-election romp. Ryan neglects to mention that his own budget proposal includes those same cuts, leading to Democratic charges of hypocrisy. "We got out ahead on it," says a Romney campaign aide. "The Obama campaign was on the defensive."
It wasn't long before Democrats were back on the offensive. In Charlotte, Bill Clinton blasted the Romney-Ryan approach as "the end of Medicare as we know it." And the Obama campaign has aired ads in Florida, Ohio and other swing states explaining that the "Ryan Plan" will raise costs for seniors; the ad closes with a shot of an elderly woman in her bathrobe reading medical bills with dismay.
So far, Democrats have kept the upper hand. A late-September survey by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that voters in Ohio, Virginia and Florida prefer Obama's Medicare position to the Romney-Ryan reforms by wide margins. In Florida, Obama has 65% support on the issue. Other polling has shown Obama gaining among seniors since Ryan entered the campaign as the issue of health care rises in importance to voters. "Since the conventions, Democrats have spent a lot of money to tell people what the Ryan plan is and how it works," Blendon notes. But it is also true that other polling has shown a murkier picture, with the candidates virtually tied on who would best handle Medicare policy. Republicans say that anything less than a commanding lead for Obama on an issue on which Democrats traditionally enjoy an advantage amounts to a win for the GOP.
Nor have Romney and Ryan entirely dodged the details of their Medicare plan. In the first debate, Romney unapologetically defended Ryan's Medicare vision as an effort to introduce competition into the program--but only after Obama raised the point (and Ryan's name) first. In a Sept. 21 speech to the AARP, much of which was devoted to attacking Obamacare, Ryan touted his plan as "empower[ing] future seniors to choose the coverage that works best for them," with a financial support system "designed to guarantee that seniors can always afford Medicare, no exceptions." But he offered no estimate of his plan's savings or how much more seniors who turn down traditional Medicare might have to pay.
Still, some conservatives fret that Romney is now stuck with the worst of both worlds: carrying the baggage of an unpopular Medicare plan without embracing it enough to excite small-government conservatives or develop a mandate for the idea should he be elected. "Most people feel that if you're going to have Ryan on the ticket, you might as well hit Medicare head-on," says one GOP operative.
Liberals say there's an obvious reason for muffling the Ryan message. The public doesn't support balancing the budget through huge spending cuts. Columnists may extol Ryan's budgets as visionary and hardheaded, but their particulars have never been popular. For instance, only 18% of Americans would support major cuts to Medicare to reduce the deficit, according to a June 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation poll. "The policies in the Ryan budget are deeply unattractive to both seniors and middle-class voters," says Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress.
It's fair to say that Ryan the candidate is a pure wonk in his diagnosis of America's economic ills. But when it comes to solutions, he is often just fuzzy. And it's not just health care. Grilled during a Sept. 30 Fox News appearance about how much Romney's proposed income tax cuts would cost, Ryan wouldn't answer. "I don't have the time. It would take me too long to go through all of the math," he said. Voters may be taking notice. "We keep talking about China and jobs, and then we talk about the unemployment," a woman at a town hall in Clinton, Iowa, told Ryan days later. "But where are the answers? I mean, why aren't you more specific? ... What are your plans?"
A Winner Either Way
Of course, campaigns are about more than policy details. And Ryan has been an asset in less tangible ways. His speech was a Tampa highlight, thrilling Republicans (and infuriating Democrats, who accused him of brazen lies). He has turned out to be a natural on the stump, more at ease and plain-speaking than the often starchy Romney. Dropping by a restaurant in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, Ryan worked in a reference to his days of tarpon and bone fishing in the Florida Keys. In Orlando, his face brightened when a woman who'd frantically waved her hand to ask a question joked that she felt like the eager Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter. "I'm old enough to get that Horshack joke!" the 42-year-old Ryan quipped, drawing a round of giggles. Even Jon Stewart had to interrupt a recent anti-Ryan rant to call him "chiseled-chin McNicey face ... He's really good-looking."
Ryan has also been an important Romney messenger to blue collar voters who may be suspicious of a multimillionaire venture capitalist charged by Democrats with laying off dozens of workers. Ryan has stumped repeatedly in the industrial Midwest, touting his small-town Wisconsin roots, his Catholicism and his love of hunting.
And then there's the electoral map. Obama's durable lead in several battleground states limits Romney's path to an electoral majority. But Ryan's presence on the ticket has helped put in play Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes, which could be enough to rescue Romney if he loses Ohio. One respected poll recently showed Romney just two points behind in the Badger State.
If Romney does win, Ryan could become one of the most influential Vice Presidents in history. Perhaps no other No. 2 would take on the Veep's job with so clear a policy agenda. And the chemistry between the two men suggests that Ryan would have a prominent seat at Romney's table. Indeed, campaign aides say that a shared love of data and number crunching influenced Romney's decision to choose Ryan at least as much as any strategic calculus for the fall campaign.
And if Obama should prevail? Ryan is sure to be at the center of an internal war within the Republican Party over what went wrong. Party moderates will undoubtedly argue that going after a popular program like Medicare was a foolish fight to pick. Conservatives will bray--as they have already begun to do--that Ryan was never "unleashed," allowed to make the kind of sales pitch for his ideas that they have seen in private for several years now. "The Romney ticket would be well served to let Paul Ryan be Paul Ryan," Chris Chocola, head of the conservative Club for Growth, recently told the New York Times. The winning side in that civil war could determine whether Ryan is remembered as an accident of history or, more likely, an early favorite for the 2016 Republican nomination.

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