Thank heaven that Bobo’s off today so we don’t have his ruminations on The Zombie-Eyed Granny Starver (ZEGS from now on) and how he’s the savior of the country. Mr. Cohen, however, seems to have drunk deep of the ZEGS Kool-Aid. In “Saving Private Romney” he gurgles that Romney’s choice of Ryan has the merit of opening a serious debate about the debt undermining America. Oh, puh-leeze… Mr. Nocera says “Let the Real Debate Begin.” He squawks that with Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket, Americans can have a much needed discussion about the size and role of the federal government. The hell they will, not with “reporters” and “pundits” who actually look at what ZEGS has proposed and consider him A Very Serious Thinker. Mr. Bruni, in “The Bold to Mitt’s Bland,” says what Paul Ryan can give Mitt Romney is a tutorial in political myth-making. Here’s Mr. Cohen, drunk on Kool-Aid:
No sooner had Mitt Romney and his newly picked running mate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin dubbed themselves “America’s Comeback Team” than President Barack Obama tweeted: “Romney-Ryan: The Go Back Team.”
Bring it on! Saving Private Romney is going to involve an ideological battle — over the size of government, the extent of Americans’ obligations to one another, even the soul of the country — that is no less than the United States deserves. An election should not be about candidates’ “likability” when a great nation is poised at the brink of decline. It should be a large debate, not a small one.
I had been observing the U.S. election from Europe, which knows about painful loss of power, and picked up principally a blur of slur. Now Romney has provided a spark. He has introduced a young man with conservative credentials that meet the Ayn Rand test and a whiff of the natural political animal.
Elections often hinge on simple ideas. Reagan asked Americans: Are you better off than you were four years ago? François Hollande defeated the incumbent in France by presenting himself as the “Monsieur Normal” who dislikes the rich. Romney, in picking Ryan, turned the election into a vote on a core question: Who can revive America?
(The rest of the world hardly comes into it for now: Ryan’s international credentials are nonexistent.)
The Romney gamble is huge because the line of Democrat attack against him and Ryan is so clear: They are the heartless would-be destroyers of Medicare, the health insurance program for retirees (who abound in battleground state Florida), and Medicaid; and they are the architects of a massive redistribution of income from bottom to top at a time when the top, unlike the middle and bottom, is doing just fine. They would offer the Bain blandishments to billionaires but bulldoze America’s social compact. (Contrary to a widespread European view, it exists).
The shape of the Republican counter-attack is equally apparent: Obama, with a little bit of studious this and a touch of worthy that, has no serious plan to stop Americans living on borrowed money. The economy is stalled, unemployment high. The country, to quote Clint Eastwood’s endorsement of Romney, “needs a boost.”
Behind this battleground a mountain stands. It is composed of debt. I applaud the Ryan pick because it places front and center what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has called the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security: its debt.
A country in ever greater hock to the Chinese, unable to invest in its schools, vulnerable to creditors pulling the plug, will not resist decline in the 21st century.
This election is about American revival, stupid.
President Obama has steadied America’s course, killed its greatest enemy and averted financial meltdown — but he has not lifted the United States from its sullen mood or undermining debt habits. Behind the now looming fiscal debate lies a values debate on how to galvanize America’s energies, as every great president has done. (A subtext of Romney’s choice is: I’m a risk-taker and can lead.)
The president has a deficit reduction plan. It would, among other things, cut military spending, preserve Medicare, and seek cost-saving health care efficiency. It makes a lot of sense. But try naming one big idea. Anxious nations need big ideas.
Ryan has built his reputation on having big ideas to balance America’s books. He is a genial guy; the geniality masks the fact that, as Norman Ornstein, the co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” a book on U.S. political dysfunction, put it: “His set of proposals are the most radical since Barry Goldwater.”
The poor, the needy, the old, college students seeking loans — all would be worse off under Ryan’s budget proposals, which would slash entitlements and turn Medicare into a voucher system. He wants a much simpler tax code: a 25 percent tax rate for higher incomes and 10 percent for lower incomes while closing the loopholes and eliminating deductions that see the very rich paying far less than 25 percent today.
Simplification would be good. There are countless ruses: Romney, my colleague James Stewart notes, has “been faulted for treating a horse partly owned by his wife as a loss-generating passive investment, rather than as a hobby.” (Don’t get me started on Romney’s treatment of animals.)
If the loopholes and deductions that left six of the richest Americans paying zero tax in 2009 — zilch! — are really closed, then there may indeed, as Stewart has argued, be some merit to Ryan’s tax proposal. Of course that’s a big if.
Romney will seek to fight the election on the values — freedom, opportunity, personal initiative, smaller government — that Ryan’s proposals seek to embody. Obama will counter with the specifics of lacerating entitlement cuts.
We may actually get a serious debate on the greatest long-term threat to U.S. national security. Romney, in choosing Ryan, has performed at least that service. The world is so interwoven that no single nation can be its guardian or guide. But an America of restored self-belief is essential to global well-being.
Mr. Cohen, ZEGS’ proposals seek to have me eating Purina. Wake the hell up. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan to be his running mate is — do I dare say this? — good news for lots of people. Conservative Republicans will mobilize around a deeply conservative Tea Party hero, who will help ease their essential discomfort with their presumptive presidential nominee. Democrats will try to make political hay over the shrink-the-government budget proposals that Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin, has rolled out in the House, starting with his plan to “save” Medicare by essentially creating a voucher program that would inevitably cause seniors to pay for more of their own health care.
But, most important, it seems to me that the Ryan pick creates the potential for the country to have the debate, in a national election, that it needs to have about the size and role of the federal government.
Ryan is, in many ways, the perfect Tea Party standard-bearer. He is likable, engaging, wonkish and smart. Although the Tea Party is fueled largely by anger, Ryan comes across as a firebrand without the heat. His personal story — with the death of his father forcing him to become self-reliant early in life — is inspiring. He is willing to sit down and talk to anyone, friend or foe, about his ideas. He has the ability to make his radical ideas sound reasonable.
On the one hand, talk about limiting the federal government and shrinking the deficit has been central to Republican rhetoric for years. On the other hand, historically, most Republicans haven’t really meant it. George W. Bush, for instance, pushed for a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients that added an estimated $300 billion to the federal deficit — not to mention two budget-busting wars.
Ryan, however, means it. What sets him apart is that he is the rare politician who has been willing to put meat on the bones so that everybody can see what he has in mind. Ryan’s budget plan would reduce the size of government from the current 24 percent of gross domestic product to around 20 percent of G.D.P. The ax would fall most heavily on programs for the poor. As the opinion writer Matt Miller put it recently in The Washington Post, “Over time, Ryan’s ‘vision’ would decimate most federal activities beyond Social Security, Medicare and defense.”
Simply dismissing these ideas as crazy is a mistake. There are many people in the country who agree with Ryan — as they showed two years ago, when they elected 87 Republican freshmen, many of them Tea Party-backed political novices, to the House of Representatives, who went to Washington vowing to shrink the federal government. Although they have had only marginal success so far, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Their desperate urgency gave us, among other things, the debt-ceiling crisis, in which they risked putting the government in default rather than give in.
But the debt-ceiling crisis could hardly be called a national debate. Rather, it was a negotiation conducted under dire circumstances, and its resolution merely kicked the can to the so-called fiscal cliff we’ll hit in January, when budget cuts will be imposed across the board unless Congress and President Obama unwind what they agreed to.
Which is why it is so important now to have a substantive debate about both President Obama’s vision of the federal government’s role — and Paul Ryan’s. Mitt Romney, who seems unable or unwilling to go beyond the bromides in his campaign speeches, lacks both the skill and the genuine fervor to have this debate. But, with Ryan on the ticket, it is at least possible. I think the Democrats will win this debate, but we need to have it openly, and nationally — rather than having the shrink-the-government movement conducted as a kind of guerrilla warfare, carried out in lightning strikes like the debt-ceiling crisis.
Ever since the campaign entered the postprimary, preconvention phase, with the two candidates turning their attention to each other, it has been a depressing spectacle. The Democrats have demanded that Romney release more of his tax returns — though we already know all we need to know. (Like every wealthy businessman, Romney works hard to minimize his taxes.) In bashing his role in running Bain Capital, the private-equity firm, the president and his aides have hammered Romney for doing what every company does: outsourcing and layoffs. Meanwhile, Romney and his team harp on the anemic economy — even though the Republicans have spent much of the past two years preventing the president from doing anything about it.
Already the Democrats are turning their fire on Ryan and his budget plan. Fine. He and Romney will punch back. No surprise there, either. But Ryan gives the Romney campaign a central idea about government, and, with any luck, the campaign will offer us a real opportunity to think hard about what kind of government we want.
Plus, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so eager to watch a vice-presidential debate.
Oh, fergawdsake. I guess you didn’t read what David Stockman, yes, THAT David Stockman, has to say about ZEGS in yesterday’s Times. Yes, Joe, he called it a “Fairy-Tale Budget Plan.” Cripes. Here’s Mr. Bruni:
By picking Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney got someone who could shore up his conservative credentials. He got someone Catholic. And he made himself look like a political daredevil, which no one had previously mistaken him for.
But Romney was also doing what men of his station tend to do: he was buying the Cadillac. Rightly or wrongly, Ryan commands more reverence within the Republican Party — and generates more buzz — than just about anybody else. He purrs and gleams. And Romney couldn’t resist the leather interior.
Ryan has precisely the kind of styling and clearly defined brand that Romney lacks. It’s striking. From Romney we’ve been given only a fuzzy portrait of how his biography and ideology supposedly converge, of what set him in motion and what makes him tick.
With Ryan it’s the opposite.
Mere days since he loped to the microphone on the U.S.S. Wisconsin, necktie off and cowlick flying high, we have an origin story. When he was 16, his father died, and from the soil of grief and dislocation, a rugged individualism bloomed. He grew up fast and pressed the accelerator on his ambitions, mindful that several generations of Ryan men had died before reaching 60.
We have an intellectual arc. He read (gulp) Ayn Rand. He read Ludwig von Mises. He came to regard capitalism as the handmaiden of self-empowerment and the state as its potential assassin. He came to regard humankind, and presumably himself, in heroic terms.
We have the hobbies that cinematically augment that mind-set. See Ryan in the woods, killing deer with a bow. See Ryan in the lake, catching catfish with his bare hands.
Here he is in his office at midnight, having worked long past dinnertime. There he is in the gym just after dawn, buffing himself into the best specimen possible.
Romney has roots or residences in a half-dozen states and is a steadfast blur, parts of his biography veiled or glossed over, his political passions often hard to divine or to trace to any particular series of events.
Ryan is a laser-sharp postcard from Janesville, Wis., his boyhood and current home. And his background there brims with ripe details — an orchard of anecdotes — that friends and relatives pluck for journalists. At age 6 he burst into “America the Beautiful” while hiking across an especially gorgeous landscape. As a teen he worked the grill at McDonald’s.
Right after Romney announced Ryan, who has positioned himself as the wonk prince of the Republican Party, there was some barbed commentary that Romney had outsourced the policy for his campaign, answering the question of what he really stood for by standing with Ryan.
You could argue that Romney outsourced the emotion, the charisma and the narrative as well. It’s the you-complete-me strategy of vice presidential selection with a steroidal twist: you fill in my overarching blank. And it’s a reminder of how bizarrely colorless Romney’s bid has been.
I say bizarrely not just because modern politics demands some myth-making, some Oprah bait and some unlikely quirks — you’ve no doubt heard by now that Rage Against the Machine and Led Zeppelin are among Ryan’s favorite bands — but because Romney has traveled a vanilla byway before and seen it turn into a rocky road.
That happened in 1994, when he campaigned for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. Although he ultimately lost by 17 points, there were junctures when victory seemed possible, and the mistakes he made “kept him up at night,” wrote Michael Kranish and Scott Helman in “The Real Romney.”
“He had failed to make a compelling enough case for himself, failed in crafting a narrative of his character and convictions that could move voters,” the authors wrote. “Romney told a fellow party member that one thing really ate at him: that one couldn’t sum up in a sentence why he had run.”
Eighteen years later, he isn’t 18 years wiser. That’s reflected in a nonstop chorus of Republican allies urging him to talk more about his Mormonism or his Massachusetts years or Ann Romney’s struggle with multiple sclerosis. They want him to show some skin. They want him to show some soul.
Ryan does that so deftly that the contradictions, holes and hooey in his story recede. Being a Rand devotee and a faithful Roman Catholic is a nifty trick indeed. So is a reputation as a detail-obsessed deficit hawk when your big budget plan lacks crucial details and you spent much of your time in Congress backing George W. Bush’s spending juggernaut.
But Ryan knows how to handle the curves in the road, because he has fine-tuned the most valuable oxymoron in political life: he’s utterly slick in his projection of genuineness.
What Romney stands to gain most from him isn’t a swing state or two. It’s driving lessons.