Paul Ryan wants to reform Medicare in the worst way

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times (August 12, 2012)

Everybody seems happy with Mitt Romney’s choice of Wisconsin congressman Paul D. Ryan as his running mate. Republicans are joyful because it is a bold move that will electrify the tea party troops of the party’s base. Democrats are gleeful because they think they can scare older voters with Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program.

Ryan is no bland, play-it-safe choice of the kind many expected from Romney -- a Tim Pawlenty, for instance, who has all the charisma of an Arby’s franchise manager. Neither is he a wacky wild-card choice like the comically unprepared Sarah Palin in 2008. Ryan has 13 years of experience in the House of Representatives and a boldly controversial spending plan he crafted as chairman of the House Budget Committee that everyone agrees could transform the federal government. 

It is Ryan’s transformative plan that now will become the center of contention in the campaign. Up to this point, Romney has been infuriatingly vague about his approach to governing and suspiciously elastic about his core beliefs. Now, joined at the hip with a man who has a specific proposal, Romney’s candidacy may rise or fall on how voters respond to the scheme put forward by the No. 2 guy on the ticket. 

Nonpartisan analysts have concluded that Ryan’s grand design to reduce the size of government, rein in the deficit and slash taxes and spending does not really add up. It would reward rich people with a tax cut, poke big holes in the social safety net and fundamentally change Medicare, but not produce a balanced budget until 2050.

Nevertheless, congressional Republicans have proudly adopted the Ryan plan. Until Romney offers something more concrete, which he is not likely to do, his running mate’s proposal will be at the center of the ideological debate between the Republican team and President Obama. Long before he knew Ryan would be Romney’s choice, Obama described Ryan’s budget as “thinly veiled social Darwinism” that was “so far to the right it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal.” We can expect even harsher words in the next round of Democratic attacks ads. 

Amid the whoops of joy from both parties, there is one person who might be less than thrilled by the Ryan pick – Rick Santorum. Santorum’s second-place showing in the Republican primaries put him in a strong position to vie for the nomination in 2016 should Romney fail to oust Obama this time around. As the darling of social conservatives, Santorum has barely slowed his pace since the primaries ended. He is still traveling the country, giving speeches, issuing statements as new controversies emerge, raising money for Republican candidates and doing everything he can to remain a player in the party.

However, all Santorum’s efforts to position himself as the favorite of fervent conservatives could be for naught if Ryan acquits himself well in the fall campaign. Should Ryan become vice president, he would be the natural successor to President Romney. If Obama prevails in November, Ryan will hold the inside track in the wide-open race for president in 2016. 

In endorsing the Romey-Ryan ticket on Saturday, Santorum described Ryan as “a full spectrum conservative” who shares not only Santorum’s fiscal ideas but his “solidly pro-life, pro-family” philosophy, as well. What happens if voters convincingly reject Ryan’s hard-line conservatism? That is the one thing that could kill his chances to become the Republican heir apparent. But if such a rejection is bad for Ryan, it would be bad for Santorum too, along with any other “full spectrum conservative.”

Santorum’s political stock just went down. He may have to settle for a consolation prize – a gig with Pat Robertson, perhaps?