I’m seeing more good than bad, so I’ll start with the good.
1. Unifying the base – Of all the plausible VP contenders, only Marco Rubio would have done more to energize those who regularly consume right-leaning media (and I think Rubio would have had bigger problems than Ryan.)
2. Mediscare for the win – Even before picking Ryan, Mitt Romney had already committed to premium support Medicare. The fight we are having this week was going to happen anyway. But like I saw Karl Rove say earlier in the week, the Obama camp was hoping that this “fight” would involve a whole bunch of Democratic ads and phone call to seniors that the Romney campaign would answer with ineffective spluttering.
The Obama camp had strategically weakened its position on Medicare by the Medicare cuts in Obamacare and the Obama 2012 budgets commitment to restrain Medicare spending through a centralized board. But these Obama weaknesses would not have been a problem if Republicans didn’t invest in explaining what was wrong with Obama’s Medicare record and Obama’s policy proposals for the future. Ryan is, by a huge margin, the best communicator the Republicans have on Medicare. The more the public hears Ryan talking about Medicare, the better off the Republicans are.
3. A Reagan Jr. on one set of issues - I usually hate comparing contemporary Republican politicians to Reagan, but, on one set of issues, it is fair to favorably compare Ryan to Reagan. Ryan has obviously devoted enormous effort to learning how to explain conservative health care policy and conservative Medicare reform (two partly overlapping issues) to people who don’t already agree with him. This sounds like a minimum requirement, but look at Romney’s competitors for the Republican nomination. With the partial exception of Rick Santorum, not one of them could make a coherent and sustained case for the similarities between Obamacare and Romneycare. They were used to getting easy cheers when they spouted some lines about hating mandates and how they were going to destroy, mutilate and ravage Obamacare as soon as they were sworn in as president. Ryan has principles, has done his homework, breaks down the issues and speaks in easily comprehensible language. That make Ryan a treasure. God help us.
4. Likeability – Let’s face it. Ryan is an immensely likeable guy.
Plans, plans, plans – As Ross Douthat writes, Ryan has spent the last five years engaged in a combination of evangelism and coalition building to reform health care and entitlement policy in a center-right direction. This has involved a lot of different plans with different partners. It has also involved learning about political prudence and refining policy in response to constructive criticism. The Medicare premium support proposal in Ryan’s 2012 budget is very different from the one in his 2011 budget. His 2012 proposal includes more money and contains a defined benefit that will be priced at the second lowest bid and kept Medicare Fee For Service as an option. I suspect that the change was at least partly a result of input from conservative policy wonks like Yuval Levin and James Capretta.
In a saner world, Ryan’s willingness to work with Democrats like Ron Wyden, his attempts to unite the Republican House caucus around one plan, his willingness to make major proposals on his own in order to move the debate, and his willingness to learn and improve his policy proposals would count in his favor politically. But it the world we live in, there is a price for all these policy proposals. His first major budget proposal (the Ryan Roadmap) had a problematic tax proposal. His 2011 budget spent less on Medicare, and eliminated Medicare FFS. His most recent budget probably cuts discretionary spending too much (Douthat speculates this is largely a result of a Republican caucus that could not agree on a Social Security reform proposal so deeper cuts had to be made to discretionary spending to make the numbers work.)
The average personal doesn’t know one Ryan proposal from the other. This leaves an opening for the Democrats. As I was driving home today, I heard a speech from Obama where he said that Ryan’s Medicare proposal would cost the average old person $6,ooo dollars. The average listener had no idea that this was in reference to the 2011 proposal or that Ryan’s most recent proposal spends exactly as much on Medicare as Obama himself proposed.
One lesson from this week is that the Republican ticket must explain what they are for when it comes to Medicare. They need to define their Medicare proposal in terms of the 2012 Ryan budget. They need to explain how the premium support bidding process would work, that there would be a defined benefit for seniors, that Medicare FFS will still be an option, that there is good reason to think that this will save the government money while buying seniors the same amount of health care, and that the Romney-Ryan plan does not includes Obama’s plan to have central board make cuts that reduce access to care. And Ryan is the guy to deliver this message.
It is fine to have Ryan give speeches and appear at town hall meetings. But the vast majority of Americans aren’t going to attend these speeches. Maybe most Americans will see some clips on the news, but they will only see whatever the news producer chooses to show. The Romney camp would be well served to put Ryan on some one or two minute (preferably two minute) ads where he can explain what Romney-Ryan premium support means in 2012. Somebody is going to define the Republican Medicare plan. The best person to do it is Ryan, and the alternative is to let the Romney-Ryan agenda be whatever Obama and his allies decide they want it to be.