Mitt Romney’s decision to select Republican congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate is a bold stroke designed to convince skeptical conservatives that as president he will crusade for lower taxes and curbing federal spending.
Analysts acknowledge that Romney’s choice Saturday could prod voters to focus on the federal deficit and the sluggish economy as opposed to Romney’s career with a Boston investment firm.
But some GOP officials privately fear that the Republican ticket could hurt itself in the crucial state of Florida, which has 29 electoral votes, by emphasizing restraints on the rapidly growing entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Ryan, a Wisconsin lawmaker who chairs the House budget committee, has pressed for a sweeping overhaul of Medicare’s current fee-for-service plan into a system in which the federal government would subsidize private insurance plans so seniors could buy their own policies. Although Ryan has stressed his Medicare plan would not into effect for a decade, it could prove toxic with many seniors.
In addition, even though Ryan graduated from Miami University in Oxford, many Republicans were convinced that Sen. Rob Portman had a better chance than Ryan to tip Ohio toward Romney.
“It was a bold choice and it will virtually guarantee that the issues of the role of the government and fiscal responsibility will be a top priority in the general election,’’ said David Walker, former comptroller of the United States and founder of Comeback America Initiative, a nonpartisan organization that champions lower deficits.
“It increases the likelihood that the debates will be more substantive and the American people will be provided with a real choice,’’ Walker said. “And whoever wins the election will be able to claim they have a mandate for action.’’
But even as many Republicans praised Ryan as smart and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the federal budget, they know that Obama and Democrats will hammer the GOP ticket on the type of Medicare changes that Ryan has championed as chairman of the House budget committee.
“Paul Ryan is a great guy,’’ said Barry Bennett, a Republican consultant in Washington with close ties to Portman. “My heart’s 100 percent with Paul Ryan.’’
“But my head says we need to talk about how people are hurting (economically), not how to end Medicare. I just hope it doesn’t turn into a debate on how much to cut entitlement programs. If it does, we’re going to lose.’’
Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said that by picking Ryan, Romney’s “chances have been irreparably harmed in Florida. The majority of Floridians understand the importance of Social Security and Medicare.’’
As he introduced Ryan to an enthusiastic rally in Virginia on Saturday, Romney praised Ryan as “an intellectual leader of the Republican Party. He understands the fiscal challenges facing America: our exploding deficits and crushing debt – and the fiscal catastrophe that awaits us if we don’t change course.”
Neither Romney nor Ryan has much international experience.
“Who would have thought that only a decade after 9/11, the Republicans would have so little foreign policy experience on the Presidential ticket?” asked University of Dayton political science lecturer Dan Birdsong. “This underscores a simple ‘truth’ about presidential elections: domestic policy trumps foreign policy.”
Ryan signaled an aggressive course when he said that Obama and many others in Washington “have refused to make difficult decisions because they are more worried about their next election than they are about the next generation. We might have been able to get away with that before, but not now. We’re in a different, and dangerous, moment. We’re running out of time — and we can’t afford four more years of this.’’
Yet Romney appears to understand the potential danger with Ryan’s Medicare plans. The Romney campaign has advised its surrogate speakers that are differences between Romney and Ryan on some of the major issues, including Medicare revisions and reforming entitlements.
Federal spending on Medicare, which pays for health coverage for seniors, is projected to nearly double from $560 billion this year to $1 trillion in 2022. By 2022, Washington will spend almost as much on the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as it spends today for the entire federal budget.
Without restraining the growth of the entitlement programs, the only way the government can eventually balance the budget is through either large tax increases on all Americans or politically unpopular reductions in spending for national defense and domestic programs.
While the Ryan choice will thrill economic conservatives, particularly those who write for the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard, many analysts doubt whether he can broaden the appeal of the ticket to the handful of swing voters in a dozen states who will decide the election.
“It makes no sense whatsoever,’’ said one political strategist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You don’t win elections with your base vote and this guy doesn’t get you anything beyond the base. What’s the No.1 rule? Don’t pick anybody who can hurt you? Do you think swing voters in Ohio are going to like this guy’s message?’’
Naturally, local Democrats and Republicans had different opinions on how Ryan would affect the local vote. Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Rob Scott said having Ryan on the ticket will make his job easier because so many voters are looking for a real plan with specifics.
“There’s been a huge push for good fiscal management in our government, from Washington D.C. to Columbus to here locally,” Scott said. “And Congressman Ryan’s plan speaks directly to that.”
But county Democratic Chairman Mark Owens said he was looking forward to spelling out pieces of Ryan’s plan to voters, saying it would help the Obama campaign.
“Raising the tax burden on the middle class, cutting education through Head Start programs and Pell Grants that allow middle income families to go to college, all that’s going to have an effect on everybody in the Miami Valley,” Owens said.
Ryan, who was born, raised and still lives in Janesville, Wis., has an interesting parallel to the Miami Valley in the auto industry. General Motors closed its Janesville Assembly plant on Dec. 23, 2008, the same day as GM’s Moraine Assembly plant closed here. Janesville made trucks and SUVs, as did the Moraine plant.
Ryan voted in favor of the auto industry bailout, but later explained to The Daily Caller newspaper that he was told the industry was going to get government money no matter what, and he voted for what he thought was the better of two options.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich hailed the choice of Ryan, saying “he’s got a keen intellect and the kind of courage to think big on solutions that America needs from its leaders. That he’s a graduate of one of Ohio’s great universities – Miami University – doesn’t hurt either.’’
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Centerville, said that “the selection of Paul Ryan shows that we are serious about putting this country back on the path to prosperity. Unfortunately, the President has failed to offer a plan to put Ohioans back to work or to end the largest federal deficits since World War II. Governor Romney has a plan, and our country is in desperate need of leadership.”
Asked how Ryan was different from other possible Romney running mates, Turner said Ryan is “young, dynamic, intelligent, well-studied and very well-spoken.” He said the fact that Ryan has been overwhelmingly re-elected six times in an otherwise Democratic district is proof that he can appeal across party lines.
Romney will be back in Ohio on Tuesday as part of a four-state bus tour. He will stop in Chillicothe and eastern Ohio, but the campaign has not yet said whether Ryan will be with him.