I think the choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate is a good one for the country. It makes the race "about" something, beyond just being a negative referendum on how the economy is going under President Obama. And the Republican vision and program, if Romney and Ryan should win, immediately becomes something more specific than "the opposite of Obama's." This is how we think elections are supposed to work, and Romney's decision will make plan-versus-plan, vision-versus-vision comparisons more likely -- as opposed strictly to gaffe-versus-gaffe. For those reasons, good choice, congratulations to Romney and Ryan, and let the real campaign begin.
One request: I hope that when reporters are writing or talking about Paul Ryan's budget plans and his overall approach, they will rig up some electroshock device to zap themselves each time they say that Ryan and his thoughts are unusually "serious" or "brave." Clear-edged they are, and useful in defining the issues in the campaign. But they have no edge in "seriousness" over, say, proposals from Ryan's counterpart, Vice President Joe Biden.
Last year, as the new GOP majority was preparing to accept Ryan's plan as the official House version of the budget, "brave" and "serious" surrounded press mention of Ryan's name so often that these became de facto parts of his identification. "Well, George, some people may not like this plan, but Paul Ryan is making a brave and serious attempt to deal with America's budget problems." As Jonathan Chait argued in a long and very-much-worth-reading New York Magazine article this spring, the "brave and serious" cliche largely reflected a successful positioning campaign, which many people who view themselves as "serious" swallowed credulously.
I made my version of this case early last year, as the House was taking up Ryan's budget:
I mentioned earlier that if asked to choose an adjective to describe the budget plan presented by Rep. Paul Ryan, I would suggest "partisan" or "gimmicky," as opposed to "serious" or "brave." Most budget proposals are both partisan and gimmicky, so this is no particular knock against Rep. Ryan. But it's worth mentioning because so much of the pundit-sphere (excluding The Atlantic's Derek Thompson) has received the plan as a dramatic step forward in clear thinking about our fiscal future.
I think this view is wrong, and that we'll look back on this episode mainly to marvel at what it shows about pundit-world swoon (Paul Krugman's mot juste today), and about clever policy marketing by Ryan, rather than for what it clarifies about budgetary realities....
1) A plan to deal with budget problems that says virtually nothing about military spending is neither brave nor serious. That would be enough to disqualify it from the "serious" bracket, but there's more.
2) A plan that proposes to eliminate tax loopholes and deductions, but doesn't say what any of those are, is neither brave nor serious. It is, instead canny -- or cynical, take your pick. The reality is that many of these deductions, notably for home-mortgage interest payments, are popular and therefore risky to talk about eliminating.
3) A plan that exempts from future Medicare cuts anyone born before 1957 -- about a quarter of the population, which includes me -- is neither brave nor serious. See "canny or cynical: take your pick" above....
6) A plan that identifies rising health care costs as the main problem in public spending, but avoids altogether the question of how to contain those costs, is neither brave nor serious. This is a longer and more complicated discussion (see below*); but I submit that the more closely anyone looks at the Ryan plan, the less "serious" it will seem on this extremely important front.
So there is no mistake: I think it actually is "brave" and even "serious" of Mitt Romney to choose Ryan as his running mate. The arguments in this campaign are about to become more substantive than most people expected 24 hours ago, which is a good thing.
I'm making a simple plea: Examine the Ryan plan, and its Obama counterpart, on their merits, and for the different values they express and interest groups they defend, without pretending that there is some bravery or seriousness gap between them. All these people are serious now. I also encourage you to snicker discreetly, or if you're in the right setting to start a drinking game, at each pundit occurrence of "brave" and "serious." People who say these things are revealing their nonserious susceptibility to cliche.
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