What a difference a few days make. Last week Mitt Romney press secretary Andrea Saul appeared to speak well of the Obamacare-like Massachusetts health care law. Defending her boss against a pro-Obama super PAC's scurrilous charges of complicity in the death of an uninsured woman, Saul noted that the deceased would have been covered under Romneycare.
The conservative reaction was swift. "OMG. This might just be the moment Mitt Romney lost the election,” Red State’s Erick Erickson tweeted. "Wow." Rush Limbaugh called the comment a "potential goldmine for Obama supporters." Ann Coulter -- a defender of Romneycare, oddly enough -- clamored for Saul to be fired. But Romney himself was invoking his past health care reform successes on the stump in Iowa, suggesting Saul wasn't entirely freelancing.
By Saturday, all was (almost) forgiven. Romney's decision to name Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, as his running mate doesn't by any means guarantee he would govern as a serious entitlement reformer if elected. But it does ensure there will be a serious discussion of the country's fiscal crisis. Adding Ryan to the Republican ticket means Romney can't avoid that debate even if he wants to.
The uncharacteristic boldness of the selection -- Romney isn't known for his risk-taking -- raises hopes that perhaps the Republican nominee does want to get serious about spending. Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts in response to a budget crisis. In his vice-presidential announcement speech, Ryan paid tribute to Romney's fiscal stewardship.
"As governor of Massachusetts," Ryan said of Romney, "he worked with Democrats and Republicans to balance budgets with no tax increases, lower unemployment, increase income and improve people’s lives." Noticeably absent from this list is Romney's health care partnership with Ted Kennedy that later inspired elements of the president's Affordable Care Act.
"It’s not that dissimilar to Obamacare," Ryan told a TAS/Americans for Tax Reform breakfast last spring when asked about the Romney health care law. "And you probably know that I’m not a big fan of Obamacare." Ryan disagreed with the individual mandate not just from the perspective of constitutional law but as a matter of policy.
"My uncle's a cardiologist in Boston and I've talked to a lot of health folks up there who -- what's happening now is because costs are getting out of control, premiums are increasing in Massachusetts and now you have a bureaucracy that is having to put all these controls and now rationing on the system," Ryan said on C-SPAN in 2010. He acknowledged earlier this year that Romneycare contained the "seeds" of Obamacare.
Democrats will use these quotes and others to blur the distinctions between the candidates on health care. But Ryan actually gives Romney the opportunity to move beyond Romneycare. There is perhaps no Republican leader in the country more associated with promoting a freer market in medical care than Ryan. Even the Democrats will eventually prefer to join that argument rather than remain in the Romneycare morass.
Romney has a well-documented tendency to want to have things both ways. That is why Eric Fehrnstrom created such a firestorm when he made his "Etch a Sketch" comments, suggesting that Romney could wipe the slate clean for the general election and in the process delete the conservative positions he took in the primaries. Romney does have the temptation of switching between the "progressive" who could win in Massachusetts and the "severely conservative" politician who clinched the GOP nomination.
For the duration of the campaign, at least, Romney can't look back. He can alter the details of Ryan's plans for Medicare. He can cut spending faster or slower. He can try to balance the budget sooner or later. But Romney is going to essentially have to run on the plan's main principles.
Perhaps Romney has yet to receive the memo. CNN reported that Romney insiders say the presidential nominee will not embrace fully the Ryan plan. But the media could also have it wrong. During the primaries, Romney was more supportive of the Ryan budget than many rivals to his right.
Either way, Romney has committed himself to running as a strong fiscal conservative. The Democratic attack lines are clear: the Romney-Ryan ticket is made up of heartless budget-cutters who will throw old ladies into the streets to succumb to exposure and preexisting conditions. Romney is the evil outsourcing vulture capitalist, Ryan (in the words of the political geniuses at Esquire) "the zombie-eyed granny-starver from Wisconsin."
The Republican National Convention will focus on proving that Romney is no vulture and Ryan is no zombie, granny-starving or otherwise. But beyond humanizing the ticket, they must turn these negatives into positives. Romney is the candidate with a proven track record of turning around financially troubled institutions and allowing them to grow once more. Ryan is the man with the plan to save Social Security and Medicare. Without Romney-Ryan, the argument must run, we are Greece.
Paul Ryan has already made conservative criticism of Romney disappear as quickly as a Washington budget surplus. Now they must engage swing voters. Even after becoming "severely conservative," Romney has often behaved like a liberal in the worst sense: a man who won't take his own side in an argument.
That's not really an option for a successful campaign. Running with Ryan simply underscores the fact. The Etch a Sketch is broken. It's time to paint a new picture.
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