Twenty years ago, a Senate campaign I was covering in the South reached its final week. It was close — this was in that brief period of competitive races between the passing era of Democratic dominance in the states of the Old Confederacy and the new one of Republican ownership — and the candidates were hard at work. One afternoon, in a private moment, the Democratic nominee was asked about entitlement reform. His answer was honest and revealing. I’m a week out from an election, he said; you and I could fix the problem on paper in 15 minutes, but I couldn’t actually get behind what it would take. I live in the real world.
There, in a now faraway moment, is the problem of our time (or any time, really). Politicians all live in the real world, and voters tend to get what they ask for. On paper, there are solutions to our fiscal issues, but few public figures — and this includes President Obama — are willing to stake out a forward-looking position in support of tax and benefit reforms such as eliminating deductions and raising eligibility ages for Medicare and Social Security that would put the nation on a path toward growth and manageable debt.
One theme emerging since Mitt Romney made his choice of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate is that the announcement clarifies the choice that voters must make in November. Like the final product or not, Ryan had the wherewithal and the integrity to do the work of producing his own budget rather than taking the easy way out of attacking the President without putting forward a concrete alternative.
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Ryan, however, is not the presidential nominee, and right out of the gate, Romney made it clear that his choosing Ryan did not mean he was also adopting Ryan’s budget as his own. The Democrats, meanwhile, are quite pleased to be able to depict Romney and Ryan as wild-eyed right-wingers who will punish seniors and the poor in favor of the well-off.
In other words, it’s just possible that the naming of a serious-minded fiscal hawk to a national ticket will impoverish rather than enrich the debate over the fiscal future, for Romney is already distancing himself from his running mate’s work, and the White House is already sounding traditional Democratic themes that seem to foreclose the possibilities of compromise by casting budget and taxation reforms in apocalyptic terms. It all makes basic political sense, but it does not suggest that significant reform will come in the new year if whoever wins does so by running away from the hard choices that must be made.
On the merits, Ryan’s budget represents the conservative edge of the fiscal debate. His detailed proposal and Romney’s much more general one are far more generous to the well-off than the bipartisan product of the Simpson-Bowles commission — a panel on which Ryan served but from whose report he dissented. This is a report, it must be remembered, that the man who appointed the commission — President Obama — declined to get behind.
As Peter Baker noted in the New York Times on Sunday, Obama once praised Ryan. “Asked in the fall of 2010 which Republicans he could envision working with in the next Congress, Mr. Obama mentioned only one who would still be around, Mr. Ryan,” wrote Baker. “He said Mr. Ryan was ‘absolutely sincere about wanting to reduce the deficit,’ though he quarreled with his approach. ‘I give him credit for at least being willing to put out there some tough choices,’ Mr. Obama said, ‘although, as I said, even there, the numbers don’t quite match up the way they should.’ What Mr. Obama found appealing, the notion of a man of ideas willing to make tough choices, is what he now will need to devalue him.”
Which means there is a dispiriting likelihood that the next 100 days or so will see a debate marked by hypocrisy rather than honesty. And that is not good for anybody, even the ultimate winner, for that winner will find himself facing problems that require a public mandate to make difficult decisions. If the man I covered back in the 1990s is any indication, then campaign reticence means solutions stay on paper — as proposals, not as policy.