Say this for Mitt Romney: Contrary to widespread expectation, he didn't play it safe.
Instead, after a mid-summer in which the Republican candidate is widely seen as having lost ground to President Obama, he rolled the dice by choosing Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan to run with him.
The choice will energize the conservative base, which heretofore has been less than enthused about marching into battle behind Mitt. After all, Ryan, the conservative Wisconsin ideas man, is the GOP's American Idol.
His selection as Romney's VP ticketmate will help establish the sharpest, clearest contrast on fiscal issues we've seen in years.
Ryan, the House budget chief, is of course the architect of the GOP's fiscal approach. Romney has praised the Ryan plan, and, indeed, proposed one of his own that's quite similar to Ryan's blueprint. Now, in embracing Ryan himself, he has made it crystal clear that his general election embrace of Ryanism will be full-throated and complete.
That will make the ideological dividing line of Campaign 2012 stark and unmistakable.
That's because of the way Ryan's approach works. Like Romney, his plan calls for doing all the deficit reduction on the spending side, which would require large, unspecified reductions in nearly all domestic programs.
Like Romney, Ryan also calls for another large income tax cut that would supposedly be paid for by closing loopholes and deductions -- loopholes and deductions he, like Romney, has repeatedly declined to identify.
There's nothing the modern GOP likes more than running on large tax cuts paid for by little but a magic asterisk and vague blandishment about the alchemistic effects of growth. For the record, you won't find a reputable economist anywhere who will assert that at or near our current rates of taxation, income tax cuts pay for themselves. No matter: expect to hear that suggested -- if not always asserted outright -- time and time again.
Here's the problem, however. A long time ago in a political galaxy far, far, away, the GOP owned the issue of fiscal responsibility. But that era of sober Main Street Republicanism ended in the last century, its legacy squandered since supply-side-ism became the GOP's idee fixe. After several decades of experience with Republican economics, voters have every reason look skeptically at Republican plans that rely on a wing and a prayer.
That's all the more true because of today's ironclad federal fiscal reality. Our long-term structural deficit means that a no-new-taxes approach to budgeting like Ryan's and Romney's perforce spells bigger cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, as well as deeper cuts for education, the environment, and most other domestic areas.
That's not just a matter of campaign charge and counter charge. The Congressional Budget Office and other credible experts have analyzed the long-term effect of the Ryan budget. The cuts it would require were so draconian that it led even some Republicans to distance themselves from the plan.
What's more, even though Romney has tried to keep his own plans amorphous enough that they can't be analyzed, specialists like those at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center have made clear that the assumptions that underlie his proposal for an across-the-board income tax cut paid for by closing loopholes is simply unrealistic. If Romney's tax plan really is to be revenue neutral -- that is, not to swell the deficit or require even deeper budget cuts -- it will mean eliminating loopholes and deductions the middle class depends on. The result, the Tax Policy Center says, would be an overall increase in the middle class tax burden.
This country has big decisions to make about tax cuts and entitlements. The numbers may seem difficult, but the trade-off is basic: Having more of one means keeping less of the other.
Romney's choice of Ryan ensures that this election will focus on those choices. And that's a good thing. This is a debate the country needs to have.