There is one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on: Paul Ryan was a great choice to be Mitt Romney's running mate.
For the GOP, Ryan has to be a breath of fresh air after their last two veep candidates. It has to be a relief to have somebody who won't confuse international flights going over his house on their way to O'Hare with an understanding of foreign policy and somebody who won't be at an undisclosed location watching Dr. Strangelove and not getting the jokes.
Paul Ryan makes a good presentation of himself, so much so that he can make even the craziest idea sound reasonable. This is a skill he needs.
On the other hand, the Democrats are just as happy because now they have someone to run against. No one was sure if Mitt Romney would actually show up for the election. Now he doesn't have to. He's outsourced the ideas department to the kid from Wisconsin. And these are ideas made to run against. Did you see what Ryan plans to do to Medicare? Did you see how Florida just turned blue?
Romney may have blundered with his selection of Ryan because, at least for now, it has taken oxygen out of the debate about the economy. The sluggish recovery is Barack Obama's biggest liability, but Paul Ryan's budget plans are now his greatest asset.
We'll see how this works out as the summer turns to fall. Vice presidential candidates almost never make a difference in the end, unless you're Lyndon Johnson and you can steal Texas for your ticket.
But this may be different. Because Romney has steadfastly refused to define himself or put any flesh on the bones of his policy ideas, he's essentially left the field open to Paul Ryan. Mitt Romney may be just the blackboard on which Ryan writes his formulas.
And these ideas are not in the mainstream. Show of hands. Who wants to end Medicare as we know it? Who wants to pretty much eliminate Head Start, senior nutrition programs, college grants and loans? Didn't think so.
But before Democrats get all giddy here, they should be careful. If this election comes down to whether people like Paul Ryan as a person, find him sincere, or buy into his broad message of reducing the size of government, then watch out. Americans love what Ronald Reagan said about government while they love what Franklin Roosevelt did with government. We're for smaller government as an abstract principle, but we're socialists when it comes to the details. The programs that need cutting aren't the ones that benefit us.
A good current example is Obamacare. Ask Americans what they think about individual parts of the plan and they overwhelmingly support them. But ask them what they think of the overall law and they want it repealed. That's because Republicans have done a masterful job of branding the health care law as a big-government takeover with a mandate that makes you buy health insurance whether you want it or not.
Never mind that Medicare costs have increased by 4.3% per year over the last decade or so compared to private health insurance increases of 6.5%. Never mind that if Medicare had been as inefficient and wasteful as the private plans it would have cost us $114 billion more over that period. No, according to the mantra that the Republicans have drilled into the American psyche, the private sector is always better.
Interestingly, in his own overhaul of Medicare, Ryan would use key parts of Obamacare that he would dismantle in another part of his budget plan. For example, Ryan calls for Medicare insurance exchanges, which look just like the state exchanges under Obamacare that Republican governors like Scott Walker refuse to set up in anticipation of the law's repeal if Romney and Ryan are elected. Ryan would also leave Medicare in place (though with insufficient funding) once his voucher for private health insurance plans is in place in 2022. Wouldn't that make Medicare essentially the "public option" that Republicans were so vehemently opposed to when it was proposed as part of Obamacare?
The same kind of thing is true of the stimulus bill. Republicans like Ryan blasted it as another big-government boondoggle. But it turns out that Ryan pleaded with the administration to send some of that pork back to his own district.
Ryan apparently sees no reason to be consistent. He is perfectly comfortable labeling programs like Obamacare and the stimulus bill as wasteful, big-government intrusions into your life while taking advantage of them every time he can. Isn't Ryan's embrace of the details of a program an implicit recognition that the program might work? If Obamacare is such a disaster, then why is he using key provisions of it in his own plan for Medicare? If the whole stimulus bill was such a boondoggle, then isn't he implying that the money would be wasted on the projects he was advocating for in his own district?
This dichotomy could end up being the key to this entire election. If Americans vote on their big-picture feelings about government, Ryan may have been a great choice for the GOP. But if they vote based on an understanding of how Ryan's plan would affect their everyday lives, it seems to me that Obama gets four more years.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at isthmus.com.