It's unclear what effect presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's decision to add Rep. Paul Ryan to his ticket will have on his candidacy, if any. But the choice certainly has had a salutary effect on the Obama re-election campaign.
Naturally, it sparked a full-throated debate on the infamous Ryan and House Republican plan to turn Medicare into a voucher, and force the most vulnerable -- the elderly, the disabled, and seriously ill -- to pay thousands more for health care out of pocket. (The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office put the estimate at about $6,500 per person.) Democrats generally can only be delighted as Romney and Ryan and House members struggle to explain why they have to destroy Medicare to save it. ("It's a great reform, but don't worry; it only applies to folks under 55 who might not be watching.")
Equally important, the debate has led the president and vice president to become vocal defenders of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- the centerpieces of the social compact we make with one another, and the glittering crown jewels of the Great Society and the New Deal.
First, the president made it clear that his Medicare reforms – unlike those passed by the Republican House and advocated by Romney/Ryan – don't cut guaranteed benefits. Instead they take on the entrenched hospital, insurance company and doctors lobbies to exact savings. This focus – initiated in Obamacare -- is vital if we are to fix our broken health care system which now threatens to bankrupt everyone – families, companies and government at all levels.
Then Vice President Joe Biden announced yesterday that the ticket would guarantee no changes in Social Security. "I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security," Biden told patrons of the Coffee Break Café in Stuart, Virginia, "I flat guarantee you."
This is good policy. Social Security is not in deficit, and has not contributed to our debt and deficits. Addressing its currently projected long-term shortfall (unlike any other government program, CBO reports it is fully funded through 2038) should not be folded into the deficit hysteria triggered when Wall Street excesses blew up the economy, lifting our debt from 40 to 70 percent of GDP . Any necessary reforms – like lifting the cap on payroll taxes so that millionaires like Romney pay the same rate as their secretaries – should be the product of a bipartisan commission focused on preserving Social Security, not paying for Wall Street's mess.
It is also good politics. With companies abandoning pensions, home values (the leading source of middle-class savings) devastated, and fewer families able to save adequately for retirement, more and more Americans will rely on Social Security's guaranteed benefits to provide a lifeline in retirement. The program enjoys popularity across the spectrum – from both Republican and Democratic voters, from conservatives to moderates to liberals. Democrats are well advised to treat Social Security as a sacred trust.
In contrast, both Romney and Ryan supported the Bush plan to privatize Social Security, which would have added trillions to our deficits and would devastate retirees when the stock market tanks. It was so unpopular that Bush later regretted making it the priority of his second term.
Biden's pledge, of course, offends the conventional wisdom among Washington's chattering classes that favors a "grand bargain to get our books in order" in which "everything is on the table." What that translates into is that Democrats agree to cuts in Medicare and Social Security, in return for which Republicans agree to "tax reform" that lowers tax rates but raises more revenue by closing loopholes.
This is the formulation of Deficit Commission co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles that was rejected by their commission, including Paul Ryan, who led House Republicans members in opposition. It also defined the deal discussed by President Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner around the debt-ceiling debacle, the terms of which would also have been rejected by Ryan and his Tea Party colleagues in the House for envisioning increased tax revenues.
Biden's "guarantee" to defend Social Security now effectively takes Social Security off the table. Democrats gathering in Charlotte at the national convention should ensure that this language is written into the party's platform. The president would do well to reaffirm it in his speech to the convention as he lays out the fundamental choice we face.
It's hard to imagine what Romney was thinking when he selected Ryan as his running mate. Ryan is the intellectual leader of the House Republican Congress that has racked up a well-deserved record low 9 percent approval rating from the American people. As former Virginia congressman Tom Perriello said, "Mitt Romney is the only person in America who looked at the way this Congress is behaving and said, I want the brains behind that operation."
But Romney's choice has had good effects. It elevated the debate over Medicare and Social Security, and as Joe Biden declared, moved Democrats to stand once more as the defenders of these vital foundation blocks of our social compact. And for that, Romney has our deepest gratitude.