Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate is, at one level, a huge gamble. Congressman Ryan is a divisive figure in American politics, demonized as a knuckle-dragging fiscal Neanderthal who would be happy to throw granny out on the street and drag the poor back to the workhouse. Democrats will be more than happy to paint the Romney-Ryan ticket as a shill for greedy corporations determined to make the rich even richer.
Perhaps some will be taken in by the demagogues. But Mr. Romney clearly is betting that many Americans, fearful not only about the present but the future as well, are ready to think hard about where our entitlement society is leading us.
Mr. Ryan’s presence on the ticket ensures, one would hope, that the coming campaign will focus on long-term solutions to America’s unsustainable benefits culture. Social Security and Medicare costs have been spiraling out of control for years, but few politicians have been willing to speak the truth about the need for immediate reforms.
The congressman made a name for himself because he speaks frankly about the growing cost of government programs, and about the ensuing effect of those programs on the sort of dynamic growth that made America’s middle class the envy of the world. It’s true that the balanced-budget plan he introduced last year calls for extensive cuts in social-welfare spending—and that some of those proposed cuts were truly drastic.
But the proposal was just that—a proposal, a starting point for a desperately needed conversation about the cost of popular government programs. Even Mr. Ryan knows that his plan will be subject to negotiation and horse-trading. The larger point is the important one: Entitlement societies throughout the world are going broke, and we are headed in the same direction if we don’t start dealing with the cost of popular government entitlements.
Many Democrats (and, to be sure, some Republicans) would rather not have such a conversation. They prefer to ignore the fiscal peril on our national doorstep and to assail those who dare to ask whether we can afford the status quo. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada spoke for many in his party when he attacked Mr. Romney’s choice of a running mate. The selection of Mr. Ryan, the senator said, meant that a Republican administration would “gut Social Security and end Medicare as we know it.”
Such a charge might well scare senior citizens, and that surely was the intention. But nobody is proposing to stop payments to seniors who currently receive Social Security benefits. They, after all, paid into the fund. But if Mr. Reid believes that the nation can return to dynamic growth and sustainable prosperity without radical reform to federal entitlements, he is living in the past.
Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, is trying to deal with the future, a future that includes hundreds of billions of dollars earmarked for debt service, a future that includes enormous financial commitments to be paid for by today’s young people—assuming, that is, that they can find jobs to pay the taxes required to fulfill those commitments.
Mr. Ryan’s famous financial plan won him attention and, clearly, a place in national politics. His opponents will use that plan as a weapon against him. But that plan, with all its flaws, will one day be seen as the start of needed changes in our politics, and in our society.