With a little short of a week to go before the Republican convention, the campaign has taken a startling turn. Cautious, bland Mitt Romney didn’t just pick a running mate when he tapped Paul Ryan. He bet his entire campaign on grabbing the forbidden third rails of American politics: Social Security and Medicare. At this moment, it looks as though the bet could pay off, big time.
When Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan stood together at the U.S.S. Wisconsin dockside, the Democratic Party apparatus watching on TV thought that Santa Claus had arrived in summer. One of the truisms of American campaigns is that no one – and certainly not a Republican – can survive proposing fixes to vastly underfunded Social Security and Medicare. So in selecting Ryan, Mr. Romney didn’t simply touch one electrified rail or the other. He grabbed them both at the same time, as well as the live wire of cutting domestic discretionary spending.
Ever since that day, the Democrats have been attacking Ryan 24/7. They took a baseball bat to the congressman’s reputation – and they had practice. For months they had been smashing Mr. Romney with every incredible charge they could concoct (“felon”; “lady killer,” literally). But they overdid it, and this part of their campaign is becoming a national joke.
And it seems to have had close to zero impact, as least of the kind the Democrats expected. Instead of driving down the GOP ticket’s numbers, the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls have remained exactly where they have been for weeks, in close to a tie, with the lead in each poll going back and forth and the candidate who is ahead in one, trailing in the other.
Yet even as the polls have not changed, the Democratic campaign has paid a price. The president’s previously impregnable personal approval numbers have hit an air pocket of late. Any man who would put his stamp on all those attack ads can’t be the prophet of hope and change voters so adored four years ago.
Here is the irony. If the Romney-Ryan ticket prevails in November despite what some are calling the dirtiest campaign in modern history, these down-in-the-gutter tactics may prove the essential predicate to the new president’s ability to get results. There will be no question that Mr. Romney has gone to the people about reforming spending and entitlements.
Some say the Romney-Ryan budget numbers don’t add up. Yet voters know that no actual plan is more than concept car at this point. There will be endless rounds of economic and financial modeling at OMB and CEA. Both houses of Congress will be involved in designing and building the production model. The current picking apart of the Ryan Plan in the media is irrelevant to where a Romney administration might go next year.
What matters now is basic intent, not spreadsheets. When it comes to the fiscal future of the U.S. government, the distinction between the two tickets is not how but if — not how to fix the problem but if to fix it at all.
Here is the simple, sad fact: In four years in office, the Obama administration has not presented a single serious plan for addressing the fiscal crisis of the U.S government. Indeed, the president’s speeches suggest that we could see a dramatic increase in federal spending after Election Day.
Meanwhile, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said that the nation’s debt burden is our biggest single national security threat. And many serious economists like Harvard’s Robert Barro are telling us that all these public sector expenditures are draining the nation’s job creating vitality.
At this moment, then, in the week before Republican delegates convene to nominate Mitt Romney for president, our choice on fiscal matters is very simple: a president who will acknowledge virtually no need to cut spending, close the deficit or do anything about the massive unfunded liabilities in our major entitlement systems, versus a challenger who, if elected, will carry into office a mandate such as no president has ever had to reform the federal establishment’s entire fiscal posture.
For a couple of weeks, the race has been interesting. Now it is getting exciting.