NEW YORK -- So much for the meme that the 2012 presidential campaign was just a content-free snarkfest of attack ads about secret offshore tax havens and failed Obama promises.
By choosing Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate, Mitt Romney assures that the election contest will be in public what it already was beneath the surface: a referendum on the centrality of government social-service programs to the real lives of average Americans.
For the first time since Ronald Reagan, the (now) Tea Party-infused Republican Party is running as a full-throated foe of what the Democrats -- usually with bipartisan votes -- built over three-quarters of a century: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, federal education spending and tax credits designed to support and enhance middle-class life.
In one of the more memorable and significant Freudian slips, Romney introduced Ryan in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday morning by calling him "the next president." And in terms of ideological purity and drive, it's true. If this ticket wins, Ryan and his Randian, libertarian, anti-federal philosophy will be the beating heart of the Romney administration -- despite the Romney campaign's immediate effort to distance itself from the Ryan budget.
A generation ago, Rep. Jack Kemp of Buffalo, N.Y., Ryan's political role model, pushed the Reagan administration to adopt his plan to slash income tax rates. The "Kemp-Roth" tax cuts of 1981 were the result. It began a 30-year-long era of starving the Treasury in the name of spurring private spending. Democratic sages such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) accused the GOP of having a deeper motive: to force a reduction in the size of the "welfare" state by denying it funds.
Instead, administrations of both parties have borrowed money and essentially kept the Social State intact.
Now the issue is: Do we keep it and pay for it? Or dismantle it and end modern government as we know it?
The central concept of the Ryan budget is the direct descendant of Jack Kemp's original thinking: give people a direct (and easily limited) cash grant for social services and let them shop for them on their own, or invest the money on their own. Kemp managed to get the idea enshrined into a housing voucher program at HUD, where he was secretary.
The experiment ended badly.
Now it's back, and a hundred times the size.
In part because of Ryan's budget -- endorsed by the GOP in the House and, in general terms, by Romney -- and in part because of hard times in the economy, the president's campaign long ago became, at its core, a defense of the Social State as we know it.
In a tough economic climate, he says, the last thing we can afford to do is dismantle the existing machinery of defined-benefit guarantees in Social Security, Medicare and other programs.
Ryan, and now Romney, are now saying just the opposite: that in tough times we can't afford not to dismantle that machinery, so taxes can be kept low or cut further.
That's the essence of what the election is about. It always was. Now it's out in the open. The functional question is: Which party will have the mandate -- and control of Congress -- to decide the final outcome of the debate?