Frame Game

Why I Love Paul Ryan

He’s what a Republican should be: an honest, open-minded, solution-oriented fiscal conservative.

Paul Ryan debuts as Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

A wonderful thing has happened for this country. Paul Ryan will be the Republican nominee for vice president.

Ryan is a real fiscal conservative. He isn’t just another Tea-Party ideologue spouting dogma about less government and the magic of free enterprise. He has actually crunched the numbers and laid out long-term budget proposals.  My liberal friends point out that Ryan’s plan leaves many details unclear. That’s true. But show me another Republican who has addressed the nation’s fiscal problems as candidly and precisely as Ryan has. He’s got the least detailed budget proposal out there, except for all the others.

Ryan refutes the Democratic Party’s bogus arguments. He knows that our domestic spending trajectory is unsustainable and that liberals who fail to get it under control are leading their constituents over a cliff, just like in Europe. Eventually, you can’t borrow enough money to make good on your promises, and everyone’s screwed. Ryan understands that the longer we ignore the debt crisis and postpone serious budget cuts—the liberal equivalent of denying global warming—the more painful the reckoning will be. There’s nothing compassionate about that kind of irresponsibility.

Maybe, like me, you were raised in a liberal household. You don’t agree with conservative ideas on social or foreign policy. But this is why God made Republicans: to force a reality check when Democrats overpromise and overspend.

Ryan refutes the GOP’s bogus arguments, too. He proves that you don’t need private-sector experience to be a good lawmaker. He proves that a genuine conservative, as opposed to a Tea-Party ideologue, votes for bailouts when economic sanity requires them. Ryan also shows that a real conservative doesn’t worship any part of the budget, including defense. His expenditure caps can’t be squared with Romney’s nutty pledge to keep military spending above four percent of GDP. And Ryan destroys Romney’s ability to continue making the dishonest, anti-conservative argument that Obamacare is evil because it cuts Medicare. Now Romney will have to defend the honest conservative argument, which is that Medicare spending should be controlled.

This morning I heard Ari Fleischer say Ryan is a good pick because Republicans don’t want somebody who thinks and talks like an accountant. That’s exactly wrong. What’s great about Ryan is that he does think like an accountant.

The political argument against Ryan is that he foils Romney’s guerilla strategy. Romney wanted the election to be a referendum on Obama’s tenure. Now it will be, as Democrats like to say, a “choice election.” Romney will be forced to defend an alternative: Ryan’s budget outline. Before the VP pick, Democrats were already bashing the “Romney-Ryan budget” and the “Ryan plan to end Medicare.” Now the attack is that much easier. With Ryan’s selection, Democrats are accusing Romney of “doubling down” on cuts that will “jeopardize” Medicare and hurt the poor and the middle class. And Democrats have polls on their side: Voters don’t like cuts to Medicare or Social Security.

So what? Screw the polls. Republicans will be on the right side of the spending debate. They’ll be on the right side of the substance debate, too. Instead of bickering about Romney’s tax returns and repeating the obvious but unhelpful observation that the unemployment rate sucks, we’ll actually have to debate serious problems and solutions. That’s great for the country.

I’m not saying Ryan is the nation’s savior. He has serious flaws. His discipline on spending isn’t matched by restraint on tax cuts. He was wrong to oppose the Simpson-Bowles plan. Democrats will hammer him on the tax side, and he’ll deserve it. But that, too, will make the debate productive: Each side’s dogmas will be exposed, with fiscal responsibility as the governing standard. And unlike many of his colleagues, Ryan isn’t a wanker or a hater. He’s in it for solutions, not spite. He’ll be the best kind of debater, open to criticism and amenable to compromise.

It speaks enormously well for Romney that he made this choice. It tells me he’d run the country the same way he ran Massachusetts: as a prudent, numbers-oriented businessman.

Ryan may not help Romney win this election. For the reasons given above, he may actually hurt the ticket. And there’s a good argument to be made—which Democrats surely will make—that Ryan’s emphasis on austerity is a bad fit for a weak economy. But Ryan’s ideas are important for the future. As the recovery proceeds, we’ll move out of a context in which stimulus made sense, and toward a context in which reining in deficits and debt becomes more essential. We’ll need more attention to those traditional Republican principles. We’ll need more voters, especially young voters, who value those principles. We’ll need a generation that thinks like Paul Ryan.

The party of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the party of spite and bloviating and recklessness and extremism, isn’t for me. I’m voting for Obama. But four years from now? In a stronger economy, with a runaway debt? And Ryan at the top of the ticket? That’s awfully tempting.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: