It’s late one evening. Behind the bar at Andy’s Cafe in Cincinnati, a spray tanned older gentleman laughs quietly with his guests when the phone rings.
“Andy’s, where the beer is cold and the music is hot,” he answers.
“Hey, John! It’s Paul – Paul Ryan, remember me? Well, I’m sure glad I caught you. I need some advice.”
“Well, you know I left that life behind, Paul. Breaking up bar fights is easier on a 67 year old body than those squabbles on Capitol Hill.”
“I know, I know. But look, I’m in a real pickle here. Was kind of hoping to bounce some ideas off you and see what you think.”
“Are you recording this? Is this some sort of practical joke? You know, like when y’all ran that celebrity real estate developer for President. Man, that was a doozy!”
“No, no, this is serious. And yeah, glad you liked that one. But there’s something you may not have heard about, yet.”
“That guy is now the President of the United States. And I don’t mean the United States of Benetton. And he’s part of the reason I need your help.”
“You mean, you idiots ran the only man in America who uses more spray tan than me and lies more than Nancy? Wasn’t that script for ‘Trading Places 2’ rejected by Hollywood?”
You can hear the pause before Ryan responds, “Maybe it was. But he and that gawd-awful combover are in charge now.”
“Oh, you are truly and greatly screwed. Like Big Green Weenie screwed. No, better yet…”
“John, this is serious. Everyone thinks he’s a Russian spy or something, and DC is so busy not tripping over one another over they haven’t noticed the Chinese star-and-sickle tattoo he got the other day.”
“Right, serious. Speakering of which, you haven’t introduced that tooth repair kit I invented yet, have you? Give me a couple a days Head Start.”
“I know, hahahahahahaha! ”
“So, do you have any advice for me?”
“Retire. Buy a bar in Wisconsin. You can get royally drunk and nobody gives a shit.”
“No, look, this is serious. Do you know what he asked me to do this morning? He asked me to draw up legislation selling Alaska back to the Russians!”
“Well, he is a real estate developer. I imagine he got a good price.”
“Mitch is beside himself over this. Jeb Hensarling wants to know if he can get something similar from Spain for California. This whole thing is going off the rails.”
“You guys are the ones who nominated him. If I remember right, you had a chance to turn him away at the convention. You gotta deal with him now.” The old bartender belches loudly. “Damn, that was a GOOD one! Did you hear that, Paulie boy? Rattled the doors with that one, I did!”
Ryan sighs, loudly. “That’s history. What do I do now?”
“I told you. Retire. Buy a bar. Get drunk.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Sure I am. I did and look at me now. I’m hanging out with my friends, only using spray tan once or twice a week and I’ve only cried once in the last year. Best move I ever made was coming back to this bar.”
“Thanks, John. You’ve been a real help.”
“Glad I could be, Paul. And next time you’re in Cincinnati, the beer is on me.”
Last night, the GOP brought the curtain down on their quadrennial convention. It certainly was a spectacle, from Clint Eastwood’s oddly mesmerizing “interview” through Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech. Although nobody would have ever bet that the stiff from Boston would outperform the Hollywood legend, he certainly seemed smoother, more polished and saner. Then again, Clint could have been allowing Romney to simply look more natural and less robotic – in which case he’s getting the last laugh.
The Republicans entered the week with seven principle goals in mind for this convention. By and large, they accomplished them all, a feat that is as unusual in political events as their candidate actually seeming likable. Those seven goals were:
- Make Mitt Romney more relatable
- Turn Barack Obama’s personal popularity into a liability
- Emphasize the fact that the economy sucks and has sucked throughout Obama’s first term
- Tell a story of how and why things improve under a Romney administration (and not coincidentally, a GOP led Congress)
- Dispel the idea that Republicans have no room in the Big Tent for women and minorities
- Demonstrate that conservative ideas are more about an optimistic future than a pessimistic past
- Create party unity behind the Romney/Ryan ticket and party platform
That they accomplished all this, despite having to deal with Hurricane Isaac’s interference with both schedule and coverage, is testament to Republican determination for a clean sweep in the Fall elections. It’s also quite a testament to the organizing ability of the party’s leadership, from Reince Priebus right through Mr. Romney, himself. That there was coordination between speechwriters, speakers, candidates and party elders is not unusual. That the coordination was as tight as it was is definitely not indicative of the fractured party that many in the liberal press were hoping to present to the world. From Chris Christie’s keynote address and Condoleeza Rice’s extolling Republican virtue in international affairs, through both the Presidential and Vice-Presidential acceptance speeches, the GOP continued to hammer away on those same seven themes. The speeches could be summed up this way:
“Barack Obama is a likable guy. But he is in over his head and rather than lead us into prosperity, he gives us the same arguments and cliches from 4 years ago. Instead of fixing what’s broken, he’s paying back his liberal cronies, be they businesses, unions or foreign powers. Instead of earning his Nobel Prize, he allows dangerous elements throughout the world to stockpile weapons that actually pose a threat to the US and our allies. Instead of providing us with hope, he dallies in the backroom brawl of divisive politics.
“Mitt Romney may not be as likable, but at least he is an honest, dependable guy like millions of you. And he has a plan; a solid plan based on 40+ years of business experience to get the economy moving again, get Americans working again and get the fiscal mess in order.
“In other words, Barack Obama is yesterday’s flavor-of-the-month. Face it, America – we’ve tried it and while it was exciting at first, we’ve come to realize the excitement has led to heartburn. It’s time to ditch the heartburn and get back to plain vanilla. Vanilla may never be the flavor-of-the-month, but it will also never let you down.”
It can be a powerful message. Powerful precisely because it is reassuring, not flashy. Can it be torn assunder? So far, the President’s team hasn’t been able to rip apart the individual components, each of which has been brought individually over the 8 weeks or so leading up to the convention. They get their biggest chance next week, during their own convention in Charlotte.
Regardless of how the Democrats perform, they better realize one thing if they hope to get their candidate reelected in 68 days. If they thought Team Romney was a featherweight to their heavyweight boxer, then they need to get their champ into the gym – quick. Or else, like the theme music playing at the end of Mr. Romney’s speech, they may just find their guy got knocked out by the better fighter.
Regardless your personal feelings about Paul Ryan (R-WI), two things clearly came to the fore with his speech last night:
First, the man is a much more polished politician than his naysayers would have you believe.
Second, mainstream media analysts be damned, he’s perfectly comfortable being Mitt Romney’s pit bull.
The traditional roles for the Vice Presidential nominee are simple. They should deliver his home state’s electoral votes to the party’s nominee. And they should be able to attack the other party’s nominee, without seeming impossibly mean-spirited. Four years ago, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin got the nod in what was one of the most curious choices ever made by a Presidential candidate. Alaska is a solid Republican state, so Mrs. Palin wasn’t going to deliver an additional 3 electoral votes that John McCain likely didn’t already have. While she proved a willing attacker of all things Democrat (and that includes, to this day, Barack Obama), she always seemed…snarky is probably the best way to describe it.
Ryan, on the other hand, may prove to a much more capable VP pick. Even before his speech last night, his selection helped turn what has been a traditional bastion of Democrat electors into a battleground state. (Both CBS/NYT and PPP latest polling in Wisconsin has the Presidential race as statistical tie, where once the President had a commanding 11 point lead). But what may prove even more dire for Mr. Obama’s re-election chances is the way Mr. Ryan demonstrated that you can attack even a likable candidate on pure policy issues, and do so in a way that makes the target still seem likable – but hopelessly inept.
Time and again in his speech, Mr. Ryan pointed out the failures of the current administration in terms of policy: a ragged economy, a sense of hope lost and a looming fiscal crisis that has been worsened by profligate spending and partisanship. Yet at the same time, Mr. Ryan did not attack the President as person. Indeed, he praised Mr. Obama’s rhetoric and ability to connect with voters. In a line certain to get considerable airplay in a commercial near you, he said:
“College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”
That one statement provides a stark contrast between Senator Barack Obama in 2008 and President Barack Obama in 2012. In 2008, those millions of college freshmen turned out in droves to vote for the senator. In 2012, they are now recent graduates – unable to put their degrees to work, living back home with their parents and thoroughly disillusioned with their former champion.
There were other great soundbites as well (imagine a political speech without a soundbite!). My personal favorite was this, just a few moments later in talking about his beginnings:
“When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That’s what we do in this country. That’s the American Dream. That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.”
For me, that statement IS what the subcontext of this election is about. What is the “American Dream?” Is it, as Mr. Ryan describes, the pursuit of one’s individual goals and the freedom to make them a reality? Or is it, as described by Mr. Obama, the assurance of an equal experience for all Americans, regardless of innate abilities, talents and desires?
If the Republicans succeed in framing the 2012 election in this context – and not Mr. Obama’s preferred context of blame the other guy, rich vs. poor – then I believe they will also win this election. In Mr. Ryan, they found a capable point man, one the Democrats should fear over the next 70 days.
Yesterday, I documented how the nation’s fixation with “soaking the rich” is not only bad economics but bad public policy. To recap briefly, those who are better off are already providing the federal treasury with far more than their share. The top 400 earners comprise less than 1% of the population, yet their taxes provide more than 2% of total take – while some 45% of Americans don’t pay any income tax. The best way to improve the revenue side of the fiscal equation is to get those 45% to start paying their taxes again.
Of course, we all know that we can’t tax our way out of the debt hole. It’s too deep and deepening every second; even if we close all the tax loopholes and get those 45% to ante up we still won’t close the projected budget deficits for any year over the next ten. Spending needs cutting, although liberals are typically offended by that notion. But it’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room and finally people are noticing.
While the Washingtonians had their fun earlier with whittling away at discretionary spending, the fact is that chopping away at 12% of the annual budget isn’t going to make enough of a difference. (And the reality is, they chopped very little – about $352 million according to CBO). To really tackle our deficit – which needs to be done before we get to paying down the debt – we have to tackle entitlements.
The President’s seriousness about tackling entitlement spending was summed up by this line from his April 13th speech:
“We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit investments in our people and our country. To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m President, we won’t.“
Gee, Mr. President. Sure glad you reiterated for us your commitment to maintaining the status quo.
The small part of the speech he did dedicate to his Medicare reformation plan was filled with smoke and mirrors. There weren’t any concrete details, only a pledge to reduce Medicare costs by $500 billion over the next 12 years. In case you’re wondering, that is less than $45 billion per year – or less than the budget cuts enacted this year. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns! To accomplish that meager goal, the administration proposes to focus on cutting waste and fraud – laudable goals and an admission that the government is doing a terrible job at administering the program. If there is $45 billion in abuse, somebody needs to be fired. The rest is the smoke and mirrors part – relying on the IPAB to force reductions in payments. Grandma will certainly be happy when her doctor tells he can’t see her anymore because the government won’t pay him enough to make it worth his while.
The Republican plan put forth by Paul Ryan kicks the can down the road for another 10 years, then applies an indexed government co-payment to a private plan. While that does provide some cost certainty in the future, it does nothing to address the spiraling debt created today by the program. It also does absolutely nothing to address the cost inflation in health care. In short, it’s more smoke and mirrors accounting.
So if both plans are nothing more than speaking points and fall well short of actually tackling the problem of entitlements, where do we go from here?
The answer is to address the very idea of government entitlements. The very word “entitlement” means that a right to a specific benefit is granted by…somebody. What’s more, expectation of entitlements are often tied to narcissistic attitudes. If you don’t think the two are related, consider what your visceral reaction is to the idea that entitlements need to be cut: odds are that like most people in the Western world, you recoiled at the thought. What, take away my benefits?
The President danced around this very issue in his speech. Namely, what kind of society do we want to be and where do we to place our priorities? The President, along with most liberals, envision a society in which regardless of circumstance you will always be taken care of. To enable this vision, they propose that the productive members of society take care of the unproductive – the misfortunate, as the termed it. Most Republicans also think entitlements are just dandy, although they would prefer the private sector pony up to those responsibilities. In other words, they’re perfectly happy to let businesses handle society’s ills. Anyone who has ever read Dickens can tell you what kind of world that is.
It seems like a horrible quandary, doesn’t it? On the one hand, we’re faced with the prospect of a federal takeover of society; on the other, a return to Merry Olde England of the 1850’s. But there is another way – one that Americans throughout our history relied upon.
Tune in on Saturday to find out what that might be. J