Mitt Romney's surprisingly bold choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate reshapes his campaign and elevates the debate with President Barack Obama about the serious challenges facing the nation. It sharpens the contrast between two very different approaches to meeting those challenges, and voters who focus on substance rather than scare tactics will have clear choices in November.
There were safer picks than Ryan, the Wisconsin House member who is the architect of the controversial Republican budget that combines additional tax cuts with deep spending cuts and transforms entitlements. There also were more charismatic choices, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Instead, Romney altered the arc of the race after slipping behind in opinion polls, enduring Obama's attacks on his business record and returning from an error-filled foreign trip. He energized conservatives who have been suspicious of the former Massachusetts governor, but his provocative decision also raises more serious questions about where he would lead the nation.
With Ryan, Romney has fully embraced the tea party wing of the Republican Party that only months ago House Speaker John Boehner tried to stiff-arm. A campaign that last week was all about Obama's record now also becomes about what Romney and Ryan would do if elected, which is a healthy development. The presumptive Republican nominee who cast himself as the Washington outsider has effectively embraced the Republican-led Congress that has been obstructionist and is held in less regard by voters than the president.
Ryan's federal budget plan was labeled by Newt Gingrich last year as "right-wing social engineering'' and "too big a jump" for the country. It would transform Medicare into a voucher program for those under 55, and the Congressional Budget Office concluded the 2011 version would require seniors to pay an average of $6,400 more by 2022. It also would turn Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, into a system of block grants to the states — and you can bet in Florida that would result in fewer people on Medicaid and more uncompensated care in hospital emergency rooms. Overall, the Ryan budget would cut more than $5 trillion in projected spending over 10 years while reducing tax revenue by $4 trillion.
Left on his own, Ryan would go even further. He urged President George W. Bush to create private investment accounts as part of Social Security, which the public rejected in 2005 and are not part of Ryan's current budget plan. Ryan also has tried to mute criticism of his Medicare plan by now saying beneficiaries could choose to stay in the existing system. But on bigger budget issues, Ryan has shown no signs of compromising. He was a member of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission and voted against its more balanced approach toward reducing the deficit because it included raising revenue. Ryan also reportedly pressured Boehner last year to break off talks with Obama on a far-reaching budget compromise.
It's no wonder that Romney campaigned in Florida Monday without Ryan and says the focus should be on his own less specific budget plan, not the one Ryan pushed through the House. But when Romney chose his running mate, he got more than a smart, articulate leader of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. He got all of Ryan's baggage as well — and that includes a budget plan that is not in the nation's best interest.