Why Paul Ryan Is No Game-Changer

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Many people want the Ryan pick to mean the beginning of a national policy debate, but Romney has little to gain by making the gritty details of Ryan's budget the centerpiece of his campaign

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Everybody agrees that the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's veep suddenly makes this campaign all about the budget. Now we're going to have a conversation. About policies. With numbers. And slides.*

And maybe they're right. Maybe Ryan will act like a steroidal injection of wonky substance into a campaign distinguished mostly by vagueness and micro-gaffes. His vision of the next 40 years of budgeting does offer a clear contrast from the White House. Obama has promised to raise income taxes on income over $250,000, while Ryan wants to cut rates and freeze revenue at 19% of GDP forever. Obama's health care plan is focused on expanding coverage by keeping Medicare and creating a new plan to subsidize the uninsured, while Ryan's health plan is focused on cutting spending by repealing Obama's new plan and turning Medicare into something very much like Obamacare-for-old-people.

Ryan is praised for his across-the-board bravery, but his bravery is idiosyncratic. His plans contain many details about budget cuts, but not many details about tax deductions (Ryan says he prefers to leave these details to Ways and Means). His latest plan takes a sledgehammer to Medicaid, but it basically leaves Social Security alone. Seen from the right, he's a hero for small government. Seen from the left, his "heroism" stands on the backs of deeply slashed programs for the poor.

Campaigns are about drawing contrasts, and one could hardly imagine one starker than between the Obama and Ryan. But then again ... Ryan isn't running for president, and Romney has little to gain by making the details of his controversial budget the centerpiece of his campaign, for a few reasons:

(1) By eliminating capital gains taxes, Ryan's plan could bring Mitt Romney's tax rate down below 1%. The guy who spent the last two months promising he paid taxes in 2009 is about to adopt a plan that would ensure he'd pay no taxes in 2014? Don't think so.

(2) It would be a lie to tell voters than Ryan's Medicare plan would take away old people's health care, because it does not impact near-retirees. But the plan is so radical -- it changes the very philosophy of Medicare from defined-benefit to defined-contribution -- that the ease with which it can be demagogued would be enough to keep Romney from bragging too loudly or descriptively about it.

(3) Although I'm sure Ryan wouldn't have signed onto this position if he didn't get some assurance that his ideas would play a role, it wasn't an accident that the Romney campaign has been one of the vaguest in modern memory on budget and tax policies. If Romney's team has always thought that talking specifics about fiscal policy is a winning strategy, they had an easy solution: Be less vague. The argument I can believe is that Ryan was picked for his image rather than his line-items. If independent voters are seeking trust and answers, Republicans can hammer home the theme of solutions, plans, and problem-solving. The country's got problems, and the GOP's got a business guy and a numbers guy.

It might work. It might not. But I don't think this changes *the debate* in any meaningful way. Paul Ryan is a man of substance, at least as defined by density of graphs and numbers, but the most effective political messages aren't specific, they're evocative. Feelings are easier to remember than ten-year savings projections. In the next two weeks, journalists will remind each other, and themselves, why they loved or hated the Ryan budget. And by that time, Romney and Ryan will have a nicely edited advertisement about how Obama policies "aren't working," that Americans are "desperate for answers," and that they have [cue: key change, harpsichord] "a real plan" that puts our favorite health care programs "on sure footing" without too many details from the actual Ryan budget.


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*Tomorrow I'll unpack some of the best and worst parts of the Ryan budget. This is a reaction to the reaction of today's news.
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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