Even though it's clear to both sides now that something has to be done, the Republican proposal is too far right to ever be enacted.
Mitt Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running-mate seems likely to simultaneously raise Americans' awareness of Washington's long-term budget challenge and show why the current debate can't produce a sustainable solution.
By elevating Ryan, Romney has ensured an extended argument on the centerpiece of the fiscal plan that the personable but deeply ideological House Budget Committee chairman passed through his chamber both in 2011 and 2012: Ryan's proposal to convert Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system.
In crafting his plan, Ryan got one big thing right: As the number of seniors literally doubles in the coming decades, Washington can't maintain the existing social safety net without imposing unacceptable tax burdens on the working-age population or starving programs, such as education, that invest in the next generation.
Bitter experience has demonstrated that it is virtually impossible to sell major changes in entitlement programs without bipartisan support. And Ryan's blueprint seems almost designed to repel Democrats.
That conclusion is driven by demography, not ideology. In 1950, seniors represented just 8 percent of Americans, and the taxpaying, working-age population outnumbered them by about 7-to-1. Today, as the baby boom ages, the nation's 42 million seniors represent 13 percent of the population; the working-age population outnumbers them by only about 4.5-to-1.
This shift, compounded by rising health-care costs, has already tilted federal spending heavily toward the elderly, squeezing future-oriented investments. Julia Isaacs of the Urban Institute has calculated that programs for seniors now consume four times as much of the federal budget as programs for children; per capita, the federal government now spends about $7 per senior for each $1 it spends on kids. (Ironically, the reductions in Medicare spending that President Obama used to help fund health coverage for the working-age uninsured -- which the Romney campaign this week pledged to reverse--represent a rare effort to shift resources down the generational ladder; Ryan, who twice included the same cuts in his budget, was for them before he was against them.)
Over time, the demographic pressures will intensify. The Social Security trustees project that by 2040 there will be 80 million seniors (one-fifth of the total population) and only about two and a half working-age Americans for each one of them. Ryan is right to recognize that something's got to give.
But while he has correctly diagnosed a major problem, his plan ignores another central element of the budget equation: The bitter experience of leaders from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to Barack Obama has demonstrated that it is virtually impossible to sell major changes in entitlement programs without bipartisan support. And Ryan's blueprint seems almost designed to repel Democrats.