The Ryan pick.

Listen to the broadcast of Decision 2012 with Paul Gleiser, Monday, August 13, 2012.

My assumption was traditional. Marco Rubio is Hispanic. He’s conservative. He’s from Florida, arguably the most important swing state. That trifecta seemed to me all but unbeatable in the run-up to Romney’s announcement of a running mate.

And yet, Romney passed on making an overtly political choice in favor of a governing choice. If Romney can win the White House, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan will in all likelihood be the most domestic policy-involved vice president in recent history.

Paul Ryan has risen quickly since his first election to Congress in 1999. In 2008 he became ranking member on the powerful House Budget Committee, stepping over several more senior Republicans. In 2010, following the Republican takeover of the House, he became chairman.

The last two budgets to pass the House of Representatives each came to be called “The Ryan Budget.” In those budget proposals, Ryan called for reducing marginal tax rates across the board, eliminating many of the most commonly-used deductions, eliminating the capital gains tax and the estate tax and eliminating the corporate income tax. The revenue lost from these taxes would be replaced by a consumption tax in the Ryan model.

Neither of the Ryan budgets that passed the House were ever taken up by the Senate. The Senate has not passed a federal budget since 2009.

Also in those budget proposals, Ryan put forth plans to phase out the current Medicare model under which the government directly pays doctors and hospitals for services provided to seniors. Instead, Medicare would provide vouchers that beneficiaries could use to purchase health insurance in the open market.

In so doing, Ryan became the first member of Congress from either party to substantively propose modifying Medicare. For this apostasy, in an Internet commercial produced by the Agenda Project, a New York-based non-profit political organization, Ryan was depicted shoving an elderly woman in a wheelchair over a cliff, presumably to her death.

And therein lies the significance of the Ryan pick for VP.

The Democrats and the Obama campaign will savagely attack Ryan. Using Medicare as the theme, they will demonize Ryan at every turn and will seek to instill fear in the minds of Medicare recipients. They will do this in hope of the direct benefit of picking up votes from seniors and for the indirect benefit of shifting the debate away from the parlous state of the economy and the U.S. Treasury.

Social Security and Medicare (collectively “entitlements”) have traditionally been called the “third rail” in politics – meaning that if you touched them, you died. Many, and perhaps a majority, of seniors currently receiving Medicare benefits don’t want to hear that Medicare is broke and don’t believe that any proposal to get the program on a firm financial footing wouldn’t negatively affect them. Thus the reluctance of two generations of politicians from both parties to substantively address Medicare’s massive and growing problems.

That Ryan has not only touched the third rail, but has persuaded other Republicans to join him, means that for the first time in a presidential election, debate on the subject of entitlements will consist of more than generalities and bromides.

Given the mendacity of Democrats in attacking any proposal that actually addresses entitlements, it’s a debate that Team Romney will have to win if Romney is to win the White House.

Which means that Romney will have to put forth substantive policy arguments and he will have to successfully show the Democrats to be demagogues. No matter what happens in the election, that debate is useful and long overdue.

Toward that end, the Ryan pick is brilliant. Ryan is young, good-looking and articulate. Further, he is a happy warrior. His sunny demeanor will complicate Democratic attempts to run their playbook favorite of characterizing Republicans as mean-spirited, miserly and intent on inflicting misery on the many for the benefit of the few.

The received wisdom in politics is that a VP candidate can help you a little or hurt you a lot. It is unlikely in the extreme that Ryan will hurt Romney even a little.

And it is just possible that he can defy the traditional wisdom and help a lot.

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