Jonah Goldberg: Run, Paul Ryan, run

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' announcement that he can't play in the presidential primaries because his wife and daughters say he's not allowed to is terrible news for the GOP and the country.

It's terrible not because Daniels was obviously the best candidate or that he had the best chance to beat President Obama. It's terrible because Daniels would have elevated the debate on entitlement reform and the budget in a way that no one else currently in the race seems able to.

Oh, the "tea parties" will have plenty of candidates. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the founder and head of the House Tea Party Caucus, will almost surely run and do quite well. Herman Cain, the black former business executive, remains a tea party rock star. On the more libertarian side, there's Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. If those two have their way, the dollar will not only be backed by gold; it will be printed on paper made from hemp.

Nearly every stripe of conservative will have at least one standard-bearer, or perhaps several (including gay Republicans who can rally around the Fred Karger juggernaut). Except, right now no one appears equipped to defend the GOP House budget, written by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, which will likely define both the presidential and congressional elections in 2012.

The Democrat-run Senate hasn't passed a budget in more than 750 days, and Democratic leader Harry Reid says it would be "foolish" to try. That's because the Democrats don't want to muddy their attacks on Ryan's idea of "premium support," whereby the poor get more generous vouchers than the middle class or the wealthy to pay for Medicare coverage. By the way, the concept of premium support has deep bipartisan roots, with endorsements from such Democrats as former Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana and former Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri.

The president's counterproposal, splashed out in a rambling partisan attack in April, essentially reintroduces the whole "death panels" debate, albeit at a macroeconomic level, by empowering 15 presidentially appointed members of the Independent Payment Advisory Board to take the blame for throwing grandma off a cliff.

Regardless, by rights, the 2012 presidential contest should be a choice between those two approaches, plus the parties' wildly divergent views on spending and taxes. But no wonk on a white horse seems to be riding to the rescue.

Mitt Romney can crunch the numbers. But as his attempts to square his Massachusetts "Romneycare" with his opposition to "Obamacare" have shown, his salesmanship needs work.

Newt Gingrich should have picked up the mantle, but he opted to triangulate against Ryan. Almost immediately, triangulation morphed into self-immolation.

Obviously, Gingrich's spontaneous human combustion had a lot to do with his own problems. If he had merely offered a modest dissent from the plan, he wouldn't have spent the last week walking back his statements with all the grace of the barnyard dog stepping on a field of garden rakes in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.

Still, the Gingrich spectacle confirms one of Ryan's original strategic aims: to "box in" the various presidential candidates on the issue of entitlement reform. But it also shows why they came up with all of those "third rail" metaphors in the first place.

So the question many are asking is, should Ryan ride to the rescue? If the election is going to be a referendum on his plan, maybe the one guy who can sell it should get in the race. On Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called for Ryan to get in the race, saying, "Paul's about real leadership."

If Ryan ran, he would probably drive the other candidates further away from his own plan while forcing them to come up with serious alternatives of their own. If he got the nomination, many think he would clean Obama's clock in the debates.

It's a lot to ask. He has three young kids and would have to get organized and funded from a cold start for a long-shot run. But politics is about moments, and this one is calling him. Unless someone suddenly rises to the challenge, the cries of "Help us, Paul Ryan, you're our only hope!" will only get louder.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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