Rep. Paul Ryan is giving the speech of his life on Wednesday night in Tampa — or so goes the conventional wisdom among the political elite.
It is where he will introduce himself to a national TV audience. As he has on the stump, he’s likely to portray himself as a dedicated family man, eager to tackle the country’s biggest fiscal problems in order, as he says, to save them.
But, Ryan has already won the political victory he craves regardless of whether the Republicans take the White House. His budget blueprints, though controversial when he first introduced them, have morphed into the intellectual backbone of the Republican Party.
More significantly, he has made controversial ideas, like reforming Medicare and overhauling the tax code, less radioactive to the point where these are now central issues for discussion on the campaign trail — ones that the Obama campaign now must address, too.
That’s a huge political victory in and of itself, and perhaps, the dearest win for Ryan.
Before he introduced his House budget this spring, he told National Journal that pushing forward on politically sensitive ideas such as entitlement reform was his biggest priority. More important than, say, the Republicans winning the presidency?
“Yeah,” he said. “I think we have to do everything we can to change the politics of this. The way I look at it, leaders don’t follow the polls. Leaders try to change the polls, and we have an obligation to try to change the polls to get the country ready for this moment.”
Opinions are starting to shift toward Ryan’s worldview of an impending fiscal crisis, even if polls show a lack of consensus on the best way to deal with government spending. In January 2007, just 53 percent of people polled by the Pew Research Center considered the budget deficit a top priority for lawmakers. By January 2012, that number jumped to 69 percent.
“Well, in theory, people want to see something done,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “There’s still a lot of resistance to sacrifice.”
The same goes for the polling on the popular health care program for seniors, Medicare. In February 2012, according to polling done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 70 percent of respondents wanted to keep Medicare as is. By this summer, a Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post poll showed that 58 percent of adults preferred Medicare to remain the same: a shift in sentiment that the Kaiser pollster, Mollyann Brodie, attributed to a change in the way the question was asked.
Still, the change in sentiment also shows an opening for both campaigns to move the dialogue on the entitlement program for the elderly based on the way they frame and message the issue. “The argument is resonating with the public more, especially those looking for a change,” Brodie says.
The campaign’s focus on fiscal issues has also exposed the generational differences in the way the public views Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the deficit — an opening that savvy politicians, like Ryan, can exploit. Baby boomers, along with the older generation, overwhelming prefer to keep the government programs as is. But what about their kids?
Fewer than half of millennials say they want to avoid any future cuts to the programs, and 86 percent of them surveyed by Pew in June say they’d be fine with moving Social Security to a program that allows young workers to invest in private accounts. “The generational politics is part of the game these days,” Kohut says.
The irony is that Republicans typically turn out the vote more than Democrats among senior citizens, so it’s gamble for the Romney-Ryan ticket to base part of its platform on overhauling programs dear to seniors. But, it’s also a long-term bet that up-and-coming Republicans will be able to shift the conversation to make it appealing to younger voters.
Ryan has always been willing to take these political risks, and the timing of his emergence onto the national stage couldn’t come at better time for his brand of ideology.
Voters are tired of high unemployment, a bleak housing market, and prolonged economic insecurity, with no clear solutions from either political party. Ryan’s proposals for deep spending cuts and even deeper tax cuts may not be the economic salve that voters ultimately seek, but the idea that the presidential campaign hinges at all on a debate about the size of the government is a victory for the 42-year-old Wisconsin lawmaker.