Can Paul Ryan sell austerity?

August 13th, 2012

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This piece was originally posted on Politico.

Can Republicans sell austerity? That’s the message Mitt Romney is sending by naming Paul Ryan as his running mate.

The Ryan move signals a major redefinition of the Romney campaign. It’s no longer about creating jobs and turning around the economy. It’s about fiscal discipline and turning around the budget. That’s Ryan’s calling. He is, after all, chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Why is Romney doing this? Simple. The old campaign wasn’t working. Voters are getting the message: Romney’s experience was not in creating jobs. It was in creating wealth, for himself and for his investors. That’s what private equity firms do. The polls, which have been virtually tied all year, are beginning to show an Obama lead. Romney is under pressure to change course—fast. Hence, Paul Ryan.

Ryan’s calling is not managing the economy or creating jobs. He has very little experience in the private sector. That instantly blunts Romney’s criticism of President Obama for not having any experience in the private sector. On Sunday, Romney tried to argue that Ryan came to Washington because “he became concerned about what was happening in the country and wanted to get America back on track.” His 14 years in Congress had nothing to do with “career ambition.” Uh-huh.

Ryan’s “roadmap” offers a bracing regimen of fiscal discipline aimed at getting the national debt under control. He wants to rein in spending on entitlements—Medicare, Medicaid and social security—which happen to be the government programs with the broadest public support.

As it happens, we already have a roadmap for reducing the debt. It’s the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles report delivered to Congress last November. It got nowhere. Even the “supercommittee” that created it couldn’t get the required number of votes to bring it before Congress. Too toxic. So Congress had to create an artificial crisis to deal with the debt. That’s the “fiscal cliff” looming at the end of this year. Will voters take that crisis seriously? Don’t bet on it.

You can’t say the debt problem isn’t real. Of course it is. Both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to it. Republicans with their huge tax cuts, Democrats with their huge spending increases. The national debt is a problem but it’s not a political crisis. What’s the difference? Public urgency. Voters are not demanding that politicians raise taxes and cut spending now—or else pay a price. Voters are saying that about jobs.

To most voters, the national debt is a theoretical problem. It doesn’t hit them in the face the way unemployment does. Twenty years ago, a puzzled voter at a presidential debate asked the candidates to explain how the national debt affected them personally. President George H.W. Bush got flustered and couldn’t come up with an answer. Bill Clinton skillfully turned it into a question about the bad economy.

Paul Ryan comes out of the world of think tanks and policy wonks. In that world, theoretical problems are real. In the real political world, they’re theoretical. Unless you’re Bill Clinton and can make them sound real to voters. That requires a populist touch, which neither Paul Ryan nor Mitt Romney has.

There is one constituency for whom the debt problem is real and urgent. That’s the tea party movement. Tea party voters demand austerity, not because they’re worried about the debt but because they want spending cuts. Spending cuts mean less government. What really motivates the tea party is anger over big government.

Here’s an irony. Romney has been warning that the United States should not be like Europe, where big government has created a genuine debt crisis. Romney has warned, “At some point, America is going to become like Greece or like Spain or Italy—or like California.” Most European countries have adopted tough austerity programs to deal with debt. And guess what happened? Angry voters have been throwing out governments left (Spain) and right (France). Who’s imitating Europe now?

Paul Ryan is a “green eyeshades” politician. He worries about balancing the books. Just like Bob Dole, about whom it was once said, “You cannot run for President with the mentality of an accountant.” The spending cuts Ryan has proposed are extremely unpopular with seniors—the constituency most hostile to President Obama. Seniors were the only age group John McCain carried in 2008. Suddenly Florida looks much more winnable for Obama.

When you run for President, you have to offer voters something they want that they’re not getting. What they want is jobs. What Romney and Ryan are offering is austerity. Can they sell austerity to financially hard-pressed voters? It’s like selling ice to the Eskimos.