Ryan Not Necessarily Gift to Obama

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan at a campaign rally at the Waukesha County Expo Center on August 12, 2012 in Wisconsin.

A narrative is quickly developing in Washington that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s pick of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate is a gift to President Obama.

Ryan’s proposal to “end Medicare as we know it” seems to play right into Democratic support for this popular entitlement (although the cap on the growth of Medicare spending in Ryan’s revised 2012 plan is the same as the Obama administration’s). Moreover, the congressman’s proposed massive cuts to discretionary spending – at less than 4 percent of GDP in 2050, they would essentially wipe out everything but defense – are even more draconian.

Not so fast. For one thing, Vice presidential choices rarely have much impact on presidential elections (Senator John McCain would have lost with whomever he had picked as his running mate). To the extent that this choice matters, the additional anti-Romney turnout it may trigger among otherwise disaffected Democrats almost certainly will be matched with additional Republican turnout from voters who until now were unexcited by the governor.

As for the substance of the Ryan (and now Romney) budget plan, look for the Republican candidates to argue to the relatively few, almost certainly independent, voters that at least one of them (Ryan) had the guts to take the political risk of offering a blueprint for keeping the United States from looking like Western Europe, Greece in particular. The president had his chance, they almost surely will say, to embrace the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit commission he appointed, but would not take that risk. The Obama team will have a hard time making a credible claim that Ryan sabotaged the commission’s report by not voting for it when the president didn’t support it either.

Perhaps most important, as convincing  academic literature documents, at least since the beginning of the 20th Century, presidential contests have almost always been referendums on the state of the economy – with special emphasis on its growth in the year of the election (for a prominent example, see Yale Professor Ray Fair’s Web site.  The meager growth of GDP so far in 2012 thus can hardly give comfort to Obama loyalists (at 2 percent this year); Fair’s model predicts Obama to win a shade under 50 percent of the popular vote).

I will go out on a limb without a model to back me up: if the economy continues puttering along at 2 percent growth or less and unemployment stuck near or above 8 percent, there is more than a 50 percent chance that a majority of those undecided voters will opt for change, any change.

Truly undecided voters at this stage are unlikely to give Obama (along with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke) much credit for saving the economy from a Depression-like collapse, which they deserve. To the contrary, many or most of these voters likely object to what they see as unfair and ineffective “bailouts.” A ticket headed by an energized Romney with a smart, telegenic Ryan at his side now offers that change to voters who may not know or care about the details in the Romney-Ryan budget plan. All the attack ads in the world may not change that outcome.

Robert E. Litan is director of research for Bloomberg Government, BGov

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