Midwest View: Romney's inspired choice may spark a debate

This may be a campaign about big ideas, after all. Mitt Romney's decision to put U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket almost guarantees it. Whatever you think of Ryan's ideas for the budget, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, a big-i...

Rep. Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was the Republican candidate for vice president in 2012.

This may be a campaign about big ideas, after all.

Mitt Romney's decision to put U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket almost guarantees it. Whatever you think of Ryan's ideas for the budget, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, a big-ideas campaign is a very good thing. The country needs to have this debate; it needs to begin working now on a plan to reform entitlements and control spiraling debt.

Ryan's budget outline, which the House passed on a party-line vote earlier this year, is thoroughly conservative, thoroughly controversial -- and thoroughly untested.

But Ryan's strength is that he has ideas, serious ones on how to solve the country's most vexing fiscal problems. Rather than bad-mouth them, Democrats would better serve the country by offering their own alternative vision for reforming entitlements and bringing the budget into balance. Democrats need to persuade the country they're right. Both sides need to rise above the petty; there now is a chance that will happen.

Four years ago, Ryan introduced his "Roadmap for America's Future," an ambitious, conservative vision of smaller government that tackled the entitlements problem and quickly drew fire from Democrats and even some Republicans who distanced themselves from it. He retooled it in 2010 and again as part of this year's budget process.


Ryan called this year's version "The Path to Prosperity." President Obama, with whom Ryan has sparred repeatedly, called it "social Darwinism."

The broad outlines of Ryan's vision:

* Revamp Medicare for those younger than 55: Once eligible, they would receive a government subsidy to buy health insurance on their own instead of having the government pay directly for services. A new version of his plan, co-authored by Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, is appealing, but we have concerns that the "premium supports" they envision would not be enough to keep up with ever-increasing health-care spending.

* Budget cuts: including big ones in such programs as Medicaid (which would become a block grant to states), food stamps and other domestic programs. Other savings would come from repealing the Affordable Care Act. We think the Ryan plan cuts too deep, too fast -- and should target military as well as discretionary spending.

* Taxes: Ryan favors a flatter tax system with two individual rates of 10 percent and 25 percent and a corporate rate of 25 percent. He'd keep tax revenue at the same percentage of the economy as it represents today, which we believe is too low to cover the cost of services that citizens consistently say they want. And for fear of being attacked politically, he hasn't specified which "loopholes" he'd close. That's a key missing element. Tax reform could make the tax system simpler -- and bring in more revenue for the government over time. But the political fights over deals in the tax code for favored special interests will be blistering.

Under Ryan's plan, the budget would reach balance about 2040, although Ryan has argued that balance could be achieved much sooner as the economy improves as a result of tax cuts and certainty that a commitment to budget discipline would encourage.

We're skeptical of that promise, as we are of other aspects of Ryan's approach. But he's right about the dangers facing the American economy and the dangers of dawdling.

In 2008, the national debt equaled 40 percent of the economy; by the end of this year, the debt will be more than 70 percent of Gross Domestic Product, according to the Congressional Budget Office, mostly the result of lower tax collections and increased federal spending as a result of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s.


The aging baby-boom generation and decisions about taxes and spending are exacerbating the problem. Spending on federal health programs and Social Security are expected to grow from about 5 percent of GDP to nearly 16 percent in 25 years, the CBO reports.

President Obama's deficit-reduction commission in late 2010 recommended a sensible balanced approach of budget cuts and modest tax increases (along with tax reform) to put the nation on a sustainable path. Obama ran away from it, and Ryan, a member of the commission, refused to sign on to the final report because "it accepted Obamacare as a given."

Selecting Ryan is a risk for Romney. The former Massachusetts governor must have realized he needed a bold move after recent polls showed Obama's support had solidified. Now Romney must decide quickly how fully to embrace Ryan's vision. Already, there are signs he may try to distance himself from the Ryan plan for Medicare. It's hard to see how he could. He owns Ryan's "roadmap" now and would be better off leading the discussion than hoping he can pick and choose from Ryan's ideas like plucking croutons from a salad bar.

Still, the Ryan selection is inspired and should refocus the election on the big ideas that politicians have been running from for decades.

"The commitment Mitt Romney and I make to you is this," Ryan said at a rally on Aug. 11. "We won't duck the tough issues; we will lead. We won't blame others; we will take responsibility. And we won't replace our founding principles; we will reapply them."

Knowing Paul Ryan as we do, we have no reason to doubt him.

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