That is not without its political perils. By stepping up to tackle the politically fraught issue of entitlement spending, Ryan has long opened himself up to demagoguery from the Obama campaign and its surrogates. Now the Romney campaign will bear the brunt of those attacks. To be sure, this would not require a rhetorical shift by the Obama campaign. The president’s smear corps has spent the past few months demonizing Romney as a ruthless capitalist who would protect the rich while gutting the safety net for the middle class, an appeal that at its most despicable essentially accused Romney of murder. Having been the target of similarly invidious attacks in the past – including one ad showing a Ryan lookalike pushing an old woman in a wheelchair off a cliff – Ryan is well prepared to weather the coming onslaught. He has to be, because his unveiling has already inspired a new wave of Democratic attacks casting Romney and Ryan as enemies of the middle class who would cut taxes for the rich and “end Medicare as we know it.”
Democrats have been gleeful about the prospect of such attacks, but they pose risks of their own. The president and his party may deny it, but there is little doubt that entitlements are a major threat to the country’s economic prosperity. Together, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are the biggest drivers of long-term national debt. According to the Congressional Budget Office, spending on these programs will surge to 17 percent of GDP in 2035 from around 10 percent of GDP today. As CNNMoney.com’s Jean Sahadi points out, that means that the federal government will be spending on these three programs roughly the equivalent on what it has been spending for everything in the federal budget except interest in recent decades. In short, these programs are becoming unsustainable and nothing short of meaningful reform – not forcing the rich to pay even more in taxes, not eliminating earmarks, not trimming government waste – will contain the debt that they will pile up in the years ahead.
Against this background, it is the Obama administration’s adamant refusal to deal with entitlement spending, rather than Ryan’s plan for reforming it, that looks truly radical. Whether his addition to the Romney campaign ultimately will be a success will hinge in large part on Ryan’s ability to help the public that is meeting him for the first time see the stakes in the same way.
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