Sunday, August 12, 2012

Drawing Lines
I'm surprised and glad that Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate for this presidential election. Putting aside for a moment the political ramifications and what it says about Romney's evidently boundless deference to the far right wing of his party, Ryan's presence on the ticket draws the clearest possible contrast on policy grounds, and might even force the press to focus on substance rather than the trivia of the trail.

Among other things, the choice shows just how completely we've become a parliamentary system, albeit without the structures that allow parliamentary majorities elsewhere to implement their chosen policies. Ryan already was probably the most important Republican in the country in terms of defining their agenda, and if he'd remained in Congress as Romney took the presidency, Mitt would have had to deal with him anyway. In that sense, the choice is somewhat reminiscent of John Kennedy's thinking when he tapped Lyndon Johnson to run with him in 1960: better LBJ as institutionally obligated vice-presidential subordinate than "partner in governance" with a distinct and separate power base as Senate Majority Leader and, at least occasionally, different objectives and motivations.

Then again, it was already likely that as president, Romney would have implemented Ryan's agenda anyway, which leads me to the other presumptive motivation: if they win, they'll now be able to claim majority justification for the radical upward redistribution of wealth that is at the heart of Ryan's famous budget plan. Its core components are--and I'm using the most neutral language I can come up with here--very large tax breaks for highest-income taxpayers, major restructuring of entitlement programs with the effect of restraining their growth, and enormous cuts to all non-military domestic spending. The part that isn't explicit but universally assumed is an effective tax increase for most people, as popular deductions are eliminated to help balance the big cuts for the wealthiest. Romney has made noises about "not running on Ryan's budget," but unless and until he articulates what he plans to do differently--and specifics have not been abundant in Romney's campaign to this point--he'll own that plan.

How they intend to sell this vision to the chunk of the electorate that's probably in play--working/middle class white voters who don't have strong partisan affiliations, are employed but have seen their wealth disappear in the downturn and are very worried about the future--is the part I don't understand. Ron Brownstein notes that the priorities of the Ryan plan would seem to sit worst with the older whites who are now at the heart of the Republican electoral coalition.

By definition, you can't get an electoral majority from the 1 percent. And a less extreme version of this basic approach to governing was tried under George W. Bush and clearly failed in terms of what happened with economic growth and budgetary consequences. I think Ryan's position amounts to a belief that the wealthiest Americans simply deserve to keep more of their wealth, regardless of the opportunity cost exerted by lower tax revenues in bridges and roads not repaired, seniors not medically cared for, schools not improved, meat not inspected and so on. Philosophically, it's a valid position (albeit one with which I totally disagree); politically, it would seem to mean a much steeper hill to climb in places like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida.

Still, I think we can be glad that the differences are sufficient for most disaffected voters on either side to now fully engage, and perhaps also that Republican culture-war appeals will be a bit more subtle than was the case in 2008 when the nominee, who wasn't exactly a policy wizard himself, picked a running mate with no more substance than the reality TV stars whose ranks she would soon join. So long as they didn't nominate Ryan because they know there's an economic cataclysm coming anyway--like an Israeli attack on Iran, ordered by Romney's old consulting buddy Bibi Netanyahu--that will tank the world economy and send gas to $10 a gallon--and want to be in maximum position to leverage that crisis by claiming majority support for the Ryan plan.


The Navigator said...

I might prefer to characterize it as: "philosophically, it's an internally coherent position." As you note with your Bush reference, the Ryan budget is not, at all, a plan for a balanced budget, so I'm not even sure it's either valid or consistent by the standards Ryan himself has at times articulated, but if you ignore what he says and instead assume that his actual position is the one you describe, then sure, there's a consistency there.

The Navigator said...

As you noted in your previous post, Romney really doesn't have much to run on - he doesn't think he can foreground his actual, tangible example of reaching across the aisle to cooperate with Dems in order to solve a problem, because the base will hit the roof - indeed, his spokeswoman Andrea Saul made a positive reference to Romenycare the other day and conservative activists screeched their angry disapproval. So, now he's got Ryan - but he can't run on Ryan's substance either! The Romney camp made a special point of saying that Romney would come up with his own budge plan and was not running on the Ryan budget - but why else would you pick Ryan? He has no private sector experience or foreign policy experience or lengthy list of accomplishments - the Ryan budget is the sum total of what Paul Ryan signifies as a political entity. Yet Romney can't run on it even with Ryan as his running mate.

David said...

Yes, your phrasing is better--"internally coherent" or "defensible" more closely captures my meaning than "valid."

As for the metaphysics of Romney's approach to Ryan's budget, it seems--and I know this is a shocker--that he's trying to have it both ways: presenting to the Base that he's all for the "Blueprint," while maintaining plausible deniability to the center and the press. I just don't see how he gets away with it, though, unless he proposes a specific alternative... and if that drifts too far afield from Ryan's plan, he's in trouble with the Base again.

So he's running on Ryan's budget, whether or not he's willing to cop to it.