This much you have to give Mitt Romney: by choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate he has made it impossible to avoid turning the presidential election into a genuine and long overdue debate on the nature, extent and responsibilities of American government. By doing that, whatever the outcome, he will have rendered a service to the American people, who deserve to be drawn into an all-out contest of principles rather than the usual beauty-pageant cum pratfall-watch that consume most autumn campaigns.
Because Mr Ryan (unlike the top of the ticket), is in the habit of actually attaching numbers to his budget proposals, there is a faint possibility that the debate between Americans who want to retain the institutions of the New Deal and the 1960s (such as Medicare) and those who believe that under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson the country took a fatal step towards collectivism, will actually have to consider evidence rather than collapse into the usual exchange of uninformed abuse that gets confused with argument.
Is there, for example, any evidence (rather than a kind of religious optimism) that by slashing tax rates on corporations and individuals without considering revenue at all, you won’t actually make the deficit that Ryan-Romney says it wants to tackle catastrophically worse, rather than better? The ancient mantra of “closing loopholes and ending fraud and abuse” has been chanted at least since Reagan and somehow there never seems enough loophole-closing to make up the sudden fiscal shortfall. Is there any evidence at all that the voucher system with which Ryan wants to replace Medicare will actually keep pace with the rising costs of insurance, rather than expanding the numbers of those shut out from care and thus increasing rather than decreasing costs incurred from habitual resort to emergency rooms? Why was it that Paul Ryan voted for George W Bush’s bail-out of the automobile industry in the autumn of 2008? Could it be that there was not a hope in hell of the usual sources of credit being made available for the restructuring Mr Romney has said he wanted unless the federal government stepped in. Why not ask the voters of Mr Romney’s father’s home state what they think about that? Someone probably will.
A “Ryanised” debate will – one hopes – force Americans to think in first principles about what they really expect from the federal government and how it should be funded. Does a majority of Americans want the federal government to get out entirely from education, even though the evidence is that the US is falling woefully behind Asian and other countries in the proficiency of exactly the skills – scientific and technological – with which the future has to be won? Does a majority of Americans want the federal government to abandon responsibility for monitoring public health – clean air and water and in the age of fracking, the price that ought or not to be paid for the securing of domestic energy sources? Are Americans perfectly happy, as the Republican position now presupposes, to end the mortgage deduction from income tax returns, and were that to happen would it have a positive or negative effect on the tender shoots of recovery in the housing market? Is a society of widening, or narrowing, income inequality, more likely to be economically dynamic?
Behind all these particular issues lies a much bigger, general one, first rehearsed in the election of 1800 fought between the government minimalist Thomas Jefferson (who won) and the likes of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton who refused to see the federal government as a threat to democracy. That debate was joined again, not so much in 1932 when Roosevelt obscured his true predilection for aggressive intervention to save the shattered economy, but in 1936 when he was unrepentant about his New Deal.
What Roosevelt, and later Johnson, powerfully argued was the authentic American-ness of what they had done; that the establishment of Social Security, the prudence of Glass-Steagall, later the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, was rooted in a long tradition of American mutualism; looking out for each other as much as oneself. Ayn Rand, the atheist libertarian who accepted no god other than the individual, and devotion to whom seems to constitute most of the claims that Mr Ryan is “an intellectual”, on the contrary, argued that those reforms represented a plot against American liberty; a stealth enslavement. Fine, let’s have a spirited exchange of views about what a Randised America would look like.
But of course Barack Obama, who is no slouch at defending the American authenticity of the New Deal, Medicare and the rest, will not be debating Mr Ryan in the autumn, more’s the pity. Which raises the fascinating possibility that what is being hailed as a “game changer” on Mr Romney’s part may end up dragging him into a game he actually doesn’t want to play. Unless he supplies the kind of detailed, data-loaded plans for what he would have in mind after the Affordable Health Care Act is repealed, he will be stuck with Ryan-vouchers and the replacement of federal obligation to helping the poor and sick with those block grants, a “solution” which amounts to kicking the problem of costs down the road to Nevada, or Alabama by the very people who make an awful lot of their indignation against can-kicking.
Over and again Mr Romney will be asked whether he supports Ryanism. If he says yes he looks like the bottom, not the top, of the ticket. If he says no, he reinforces rather than ends the impression, already taking hold of independent voters, that he is a shifty opportunist who will do whatever it takes, say whatever has to be said, co-opt whomever it takes, to change the furnishings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If he asserts himself by neutering Mr Ryan, he will incur the wrath of the very hardcore Tea Partiers he is now so eager to appease. So while the political choice for Americans has overnight become dramatically clearer, for Mitt Romney the autumn may turn into the Be Careful What You Wish For campaign.