Mitt Romney said he wanted to select a vice presidential candidate who had a vision for America, and that he did. In fact, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan likely beats out his prospective boss in the vision department, having provided the most concrete and detailed expression of how ultra-fiscal conservatism would actually transform our government. Unfortunately, the vision is the wrong one. Mr. Ryan's proposals for the federal budget would end Medicare as we know it and decimate safety net programs for the poor, all while offering huge tax breaks for the wealthy and failing to meaningfully address the budget deficit.
Mr. Romney was widely expected to make a cautious choice for his running mate, and in a sense he did. Mr. Ryan is a known quantity in national politics and, unlike his party's last vice presidential nominee, he is unlikely to go rogue. He is familiar with the national media spotlight, and his record has already borne significant examination. But it is, in a sense, a much less cautious pick than former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was for Sen. John McCain four years ago. In one stroke, Mr. Romney has adopted wholesale a radical vision for downsizing the federal government in ways that would put millions of Americans at risk. Mr. Romney may have thus far tried to present himself as a pragmatic businessman, but in his first major decision, he put his stock in an ideologue.
Mr. Ryan couches his philosophy as an Ayn Randian faith in individual freedom and responsibility. But in practice, it amounts to a massive transfer of risk from the community to the individual. The starkest example is his plan to overhaul Medicare. Rather than preserving an entitlement program that offers everyone over 65 a set of benefits to preserve their health in old age, he proposes a voucher program in which seniors would get a fixed sum to purchase insurance in the private marketplace. What if you can't find the coverage you need for the amount the government is willing to pay? Tough luck. What if the cost of your insurance goes up? Tough luck again; one of the chief ways Mr. Ryan's plan reduces future budget deficits is by not building in sufficient Medicare cost adjustments. He would also raise the eligibility age to 67 while repealing the Affordable Care Act and its guarantee that consumers cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, which could make it extremely difficult for many older Americans to find private insurance they can afford.
While he's at it, Mr. Ryan would transform Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor. Currently, the states and federal government share the costs of the program, no matter how many people are eligible for it, at a predetermined ratio. (In Maryland, the costs are split 50-50, but in poorer states, the federal government picks up more of the tab.) Mr. Ryan wants to change it to a block grant program in which the federal government gives the states a set amount and lets them design their own programs. Of course, the amount he envisions providing them is much less than the government does now, which likely means millions of poor Americans -- particularly children -- would suddenly find themselves uninsured. And although it isn't in his most recent proposal, Mr. Ryan has previously pushed for the privatization of Social Security, effectively putting the one guaranteed piece of most Americans' retirement income at the mercy of the stock market.
The Ryan budget would decimate federal discretionary spending with a requirement that it amount to 3.75 percent of gross domestic product by 2050, less than half its lowest level since World War II and less than a third of what it is now. Given that Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney have pushed for increases in defense spending, that means virtually nothing left over for highways, food inspections, national parks, you name it. Meanwhile, he proposes massive tax cuts that would disproportionately benefit the rich, including across the board income tax cuts and the elimination of capital gains, estate and corporate taxes. The net effect, as Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put it, is "Robin Hood in reverse -- on steroids."
Mr. Ryan is a personally appealing figure, and he adds real policy heft to what had previously been a policy-light Romney campaign. His selection puts the issue of America's long-term budget problems front and center in this election, which is where it deserves to be. Neither Mr. Romney nor President Barack Obama has said much about how he would address that issue (or virtually any other), so the possibility existed that the winner would have no real mandate to address the most pressing issues before the nation. Now, Mr. Obama will face pressure to get much more specific about what he would do with a second term. He would be well served to start pushing for some version of the Bowles-Simpson plan to address the deficit, a proposal that does not avoid the hard questions facing the nation but also maintains the essential compact between America's government and its people.
With his selection, Mr. Romney made his first bold move of this electoral campaign. Now it's up to President Obama to respond in kind.
[Editor's note: The concluding sentences of this editorial were cut off in an earlier version.]