08/21/2012 03:30 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

The One-Termer?

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Matt Rhoades is guarded and intense, and more press-averse than many senior campaign strategists. And when I met him in mid-July, in a bohemian coffee shop in Boston’s North End, the 37-year-old manager of Mitt Romney’s campaign was hesitant to speculate about what the Republican candidate would do as president, and how.

At the time, so many months away from Election Day, Rhoades was focused on the task at hand. The Romney campaign was launching its attack on President Barack Obama for his “you didn’t build that” remark to the business community. At the time, most political observers expected Romney to pick Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as his running mate. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s name was barely being mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee.

But when I asked Rhoades in July how Romney would govern if elected, and what Romney might do with the budget and entitlement reform plans Ryan had already outlined, Rhoades’ eyes lit up. He gave me a name: James Polk.

Don’t yawn. There’s a history lesson in that name. Rhoades and the rest of the members of Romney’s inner circle think a Romney presidency could look much like the White House tenure of the 11th U.S. president.

Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849, presided over the expansion of the U.S. into a coast-to-coast nation, annexing Texas and winning the Mexican-American war for territories that also included New Mexico and California. He reduced trade barriers and strengthened the Treasury system.

And he was a one-term president.

Polk is an allegory for Rhoades: He did great things, and then exited the scene, and few remember him. That, Rhoades suggested, could be Romney’s legacy as well.

The idea of a one-term presidency became something of a theme in my conversations with Romney advisers in July. They embraced it, even if it appeared at times to be with the kind of forced enthusiasm one might have to muster up for a polar bear swim in the dead of winter. But there was also genuine exuberance, a preview of the inspired sense among many—after Romney picked Ryan as his running mate—that their campaign was about something significant.

Multiple senior Romney advisers assured me that they had had conversations with the candidate in which he conveyed a depth of conviction about the need to try to enact something like Ryan’s controversial budget and entitlement reforms. Romney, they said, was willing to count the cost politically in order to achieve it.

“I think he is looking to get in there and fix some things and get out. I don’t think he cares,” one senior Romney adviser, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told me at the time.

There are certainly things to be fixed.

Nearly 50 million Americans over the age of 64—15 percent of the total U.S. population—rely on Medicare to pay for the majority of their health care. By 2030, enrollment is projected to go up to 80 million. The baby boomer population has just begun to enter the program, and because of this, beginning this year, roughly 10,000 Americans are expected to join the program every day for the next 20 years. The annual number of new enrollees during this period will almost triple from the 1995-2009 period, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Health care costs continue to spiral upward, making Medicare the biggest driver of the national debt over the long term.

If left unchanged, Medicare (along with Medicaid and Social Security) will eventually crowd out most other forms of federal spending, reducing—along with interest on the national debt—the funds available for other vital government programs. And Medicare will no longer be able to pay all its benefits by 2024, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the program.

Meanwhile, the national debt is nearing $16 trillion. Economists worry it is at or near a level that costs the economy a full percentage point of growth a year. And there is also increasing worry about a debt crisis, where the bond market loses faith in the U.S. government’s ability to pay back bonds, and the cost of borrowing for the government, and then for the U.S. consumer, goes through the roof.

Romney’s proposal, borrowing heavily from the blueprint Ryan has sketched out in Congress over the past few years, is to introduce optional private-sector plans alongside traditional Medicare. He hopes that competition between the plans on government-run exchanges brings down the amount that the government pays out, extending the solvency of the program and decreasing the amount it contributes to the annual deficit and national debt. The changes would not affect anyone in the program currently or anyone 55 or older who will enter it in the next decade.

“Everybody knows this is politically risky territory. Republicans have their battle scars on entitlement reform,” Ryan said in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference, referring to former President George W. Bush’s ill-fated attempt to introduce private accounts into Social Security in 2005. That initiative went down in flames.

But Ryan and others have argued that times are different now. The 2008 fiscal crisis brought home to many Americans that the government, like any regular household, can’t continually spend money it doesn’t have without repercussions. Medicare reform is the clearest signal the U.S. government can send to the world that it is serious about getting its fiscal house in order, the argument goes. So reform may not be the political liability it has been in the past.

“Some argue that we should downplay bold agendas and simply wage a campaign focused solely on the president and his party. I firmly disagree,” Ryan said at CPAC. “Boldness and clarity offer the greatest opportunity to create a winning coalition. We will not only win the next election— we have a unique opportunity to sweep and remake the political landscape.”

“We want this debate, we need this debate and we are going to win this debate on Medicare,” he said during a campaign stop on Monday.

Still, even some of the strongest Republican proponents of spending discipline and Medicare reform think Romney might suffer great political damage if he were to pass the entire Ryan agenda.

“If he did what was actually necessary to fix the country, probably he would be [a one-term president],” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who collaborated with Ryan on a Medicare reform proposal and is one of the leading advocates of dramatic action to reduce the debt, told me.

“What is wrong with that?” Coburn said. “Is it about Mitt Romney or is it about our country? What is wrong with having a one-term president that actually does what is necessary to fix the country?”

By picking Ryan to be his running mate, Romney transformed himself in the eyes of many from a timid, calculating, flip-flopping, hollow “Massachusetts liberal” —to use the words of primary foe Newt Gingrich—into a bold, courageous, clear-eyed leader. Maybe even a conservative.

Romney’s choice of Ryan doesn’t appear to stem from some ideological desire to strike a blow for conservatism simply for ideology’s sake, however. There is nothing in Romney’s history or personality to suggest that he would randomly become a bomb-thrower. Yet here you have it: a level of risk-taking that doesn’t comport with the traditional view of the 65-year old former Massachusetts governor.

One person close to Romney, and familiar with his thinking, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly, warned against viewing the governor too narrowly.

“You assume that his basic persona is cautious. My take on it is goal-oriented,” the Romney associate said. “I don’t think you become a wealthy, successful man without being goal-oriented.”

Romney would not govern timidly, he said.

“If you look at about every presidency going back to Lyndon Johnson, caution has not been a very good recipe for getting things done,” the Romney associate said.

Indeed, Johnson’s approach in the White House is in many ways characteristic of presidents —from Lincoln, to Roosevelt, to Reagan—who have tried to make significant policy changes. Robert Caro, in his new biography of Johnson, points out that the president’s advisers tried to steer him away from pushing for the Civil Rights Act, arguing that it was a lost cause that would only antagonize the southern lawmakers who held the reins of power in Congress and hurt his presidency.

“Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Johnson replied, according to Caro.

Mitt Romney may be having his LBJ Moment.

By picking Ryan and putting himself and his own ideas under the microscope, Romney sent a loud message about how he would govern if elected. In fact, he left no doubt: Entitlement reform would be front and center. Give me a mandate to fix this, Romney communicated with his choice, or reject me before I get into office.


It seemed unthinkable that Romney would pick Ryan.

Romney’s career in the private sector and in government had largely been marked by attempts to avoid risk. Romney told Bill Bain in 1983 that he would not take the assignment of starting Bain Capital without a guarantee that if it failed he could return to his previous job at Bain & Company. He even required that Bain promise, in the event of failure, to “craft a cover story saying that Romney’s return to Bain & Company was needed because of his value as a consultant,” according to the book, “The Real Romney,” by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman.

Bain told Kranish and Helman that Romney’s conditions for taking the job at Bain Capital assured that there would be “no professional or financial risk.”

Once Romney launched Bain Capital, he focused the private equity group’s investments on “mundane corners of the economy: makers of wheel rims, photo albums, and handbags,” rather than jumping into the burgeoning 1980s world of tech and computers, Kranish and Helman wrote.

As a politician in Massachusetts, Romney waffled back and forth between a pro-choice and pro-life position when running for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and then as the state’s governor nearly a decade later. That was the most visible and egregious example of flip-flopping, but saying one thing and then reversing himself has become a pattern for Romney during his political career. He even told a reporter in 2007 that his favorite book was Huckleberry Finn (an odd answer for a then-60-year-old man), contradicting an earlier assertion to Fox News that his favorite book was Battlefield Earth, the science fiction novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

Romney’s track record has led many to question whether Romney believes in anything. He has been labeled a cipher, phony, weird, awkward, cowardly.

“Presidential campaigns are like MRIs of the soul,” Obama adviser David Axelrod said in a famous Politico story one year ago that said the Obama strategy, in lieu of a positive campaign, would aim to destroy Romney.

“When he makes jokes about being unemployed or a waitress pinching him on the butt, it does snap your head back, and you say, ‘What’s he talking about?’” Axelrod said at the time.

Romney’s greatest troubles have been with the base of his own party, which has viewed him with suspicion. Romney’s fragile relationship with the conservative grassroots put his candidacy in peril in February, when former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), whose deeply conservative views on social issues made him popular with the base, won three contests on Feb. 7—Missouri, Colorado
and Minnesota—and was on the verge of winning the Michigan primary on Feb. 28.

If Santorum had won Michigan, all bets would have been off. Despite his penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, Santorum was gathering serious momentum among the GOP party faithful. Romney narrowly defeated him in Michigan, however, and held off a few more challenges from him in the subsequent weeks, until Santorum finally dropped out in early April.

Santorum, who took some of the hardest swings at Romney, represented the views of a large swath of the conservative electorate. In late March, he called Romney “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.” He was talking narrowly about Romney’s ability to run against Obama on the basis of his health care law, but for many conservatives, the qualification was not necessary.

“Conservatives don’t trust Mr. Romney in part because he gives them little reason to do so,” wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial board in mid-February, at the height of Santorum’s rise. “What Mr. Romney needs is to make a better, positive case for his candidacy beyond his business resume.”

Romney had made promises before that he intended to address entitlement reform.

“I believe we can save Social Security and Medicare with a few commonsense reforms, and—unlike President Obama—I’m not afraid to put them on the table,” Romney said in February at CPAC.

In his 2010 book, No Apologies: The Case For American Greatness, Romney devoted an entire chapter to entitlement reform. The chapter was titled “The Worst Generation,” and Romney wrote that the baby boomer crowd could earn that title if they did not solve the debt and entitlement crisis.

“The problem is so deep-seated that relatively few of us in the postwar ‘boomer’ generation even understand at a basic level how we are compromising future generations,” Romney wrote. “If we did, I’m convinced that we would do whatever it takes to set things right.”

But up until the moment that Romney appeared the morning of Aug. 11 with Ryan on a stage in Norfolk, Va., in front of the USS Wisconsin—a World War II-era battleship—he had not talked much about debt or deficits or Medicare in the 2012 campaign. Instead he had focused single-mindedly on jobs, the economy, and Obama’s record on both. There was little expectation that he would change course with the selection of his running mate.

For good reason. Polls have consistently shown jobs and the economy, by an order of magnitude, to be the top concern for voters. While the deficit has often been in the top three, debt, the deficit’s monstrously ugly step-child, has been farther down the list. Reforming Medicare is something that has not been popular even with many in the Tea Party. A survey of grassroots conservatives by the Washington-based group FreedomWorks in the fall of 2011 found tepid support for overhauling Medicare and Social Security.

As Romney pollster Neil Newhouse put it in a November 2011 briefing with reporters to discuss the findings of focus groups with women: “I can guarantee, the word entitlements didn’t come up in any of the focus groups we did. You know what, I don’t think the words Social Security and Medicare came up. It really was not an issue.”

So it was to my surprise that in July, Romney’s top advisers were split between those who thought Romney should play it safe and stick to a bland economy-and-jobs message during the Republican National Convention and into the fall, and those who thought the presumptive Republican nominee should go on offense on the issue of entitlement reform and Medicare.

This debate was also raging outside the Romney campaign, among conservatives. Some said it was unthinkable that Romney would campaign on entitlement reform.

“It’s impossible,” Gingrich told me when I asked him in late July whether Romney should talk about the Ryan plan. Gingrich advised waiting until after the election, and then launching “an online communication with the American people in which he walks them methodically through the scale of the challenges and the range of the choices.”

“The difference is, the morning you wake up and say, ‘OK, I gotta live with this guy for four years,’ he has all of the cultural power of the presidency at that point,” Gingrich said. “And therefore he can have conversations and achieve things you can’t do before the [election].”

“I mean from now until the election he’s gotta win. It’s a very narrow-focused problem,” Gingrich told me.

“I disagree with that totally,” said Coburn, who has long been a Gingrich antagonist. “Because if that’s the calculus you make you don’t get a mandate to fix it.”

“What needs to be heard in the campaign rhetoric is, ‘Here’s the real problem, let’s have the real debates over the possible solutions. But let’s quit denying the problems,’” Coburn said.

Choosing Ryan as a running mate settled that argument. Romney made it clear that he doesn’t see a campaign centered around entitlement reform as political suicide.

At the same time, he’s also opened himself up to Democratic attacks and, assuredly, a flotilla of attack ads.


A few reasons fed the belief among Romney loyalists that their man could run with something that even some in his own campaign said was a Democratic issue, not a Republican one.

First, Ryan last year discarded the most radical elements of his original budget plan and partnered with a Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, to come up with a compromise, lending a vital bipartisan flavor to his proposal.

Second, while Romney once said he would have signed Ryan’s first plan into law, he has otherwise kept from fully embracing it, insisting over and over that he has his own plan that differs from Ryan’s in some details. That gave him some space to say that he would not include the $716 billion in cuts from Medicare that were part of Obama's 2010 Affordable Care Act, which Ryan also included in his budget.

Finally, Obama has yet to offer specifics about reducing long-term debt and reforming entitlements.

Obama was hurt politically by his rejection of the Bowles-Simpson commission’s recommendations, which made him look like he was opposed to any effort to reduce the deficit and the debt, even though he eventually tried to reach a grand bargain with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). That deal fell apart, leading to lots of finger-pointing and recriminations.

As for Medicare’s long-term costs, Obama and his supporters have argued that Obamacare is sufficient to bring down health care costs. Other supporters, however, such as former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles—whose name has been mentioned as a potential Treasury secretary in a second Obama term—have said Obamacare does not do enough to bring down health care costs.

The president also hasn’t done what Ryan did: present a plan specifically aimed at curbing the debt over the next few decades. In fact, the Obama administration has shown a level of derision for Ryan’s plan.

A comment by the Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is sure to appear in a Romney campaign ad in the not-too-distant future. On Feb. 16, Geithner appeared before the House Budget Committee. In the committee chairman’s seat sat Ryan. The two engaged in a tense exchange over the country’s long-term debt load. As Ryan showed a chart illustrating the debt burden into the year 2080, Geithner remarked sarcastically, “Nice chart.”

Ryan chastised Geithner, with a full room of lawmakers, staff and spectators looking on, as well as a C-SPAN audience: “Leaders are supposed to fix problems,” the 42-year-old Ryan told the 51-year-old Treasury secretary.

Geithner lashed out: “We’re not coming before you to say we have a definitive solution to our long-term problem. What we do know is we don’t like yours,” he said, irritated.

Asked about this comment by CNBC’s Larry Kudlow in July, Geithner was defensive: “Let me say, I said we don’t have a plan for the next century. OK? We don’t have a plan to solve the problem for the next century. But we have an excellent plan for the next 10 years, the next 25 years.”

Yuval Levin, a former White House policy adviser to President George W. Bush, has made the clearest case for why Romney’s Medicare plan would stand up under criticism.

The Romney plan, Levin wrote in National Review, would essentially introduce a government-run exchange where private plans compete with the existing Medicare program, and beneficiaries are guaranteed at least their current level of benefits, with hopes that competition brings costs down for the government.

Most important, Levin pointed out, this plan was no longer a voucher plan—the key criticism of Ryan’s original Medicare proposal. The new plan was a premium support model that would guarantee that benefits delivered to seniors would maintain their value. The only question, Levin wrote, is whether the private-sector competition would reduce health care costs or not.

“Either way, Medicare beneficiaries will have the same comprehensive, guaranteed insurance coverage they have now,” Levin wrote.

Even top Democrats, like Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), referred to the Ryan-Wyden plan as a reasonable proposal, at least in the days before Ryan was on the Republican ticket.

Ryan’s original plan “spelled the end of Medicare,” Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told me in an interview in late July, before Ryan was on anybody’s radar as a serious potential running mate for Romney. “I feel that way and virtually every Democrat shares that feeling.”

“Then came Ryan-Wyden, an attempt to moderate it and to try to find a way to save money in Medicare and not destroy it. So we’re working on that possibility,” Durbin said, adding that he was working on his own plan with former White House health care adviser Zeke Emanuel, brother to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff.

So while Romney’s choice of Ryan was undoubtedly a political gamble, he likely studied it and concluded that it wasn’t as risky as it appeared.

“I would argue that the entirety of the political risk on this issue is borne by President Obama,” wrote Romney’s top policy adviser, Lanhee Chen, in an e-mail to me. It was a biased and overly simplistic statement by Chen, but it was also the kind of thing no Republican could have imagined saying in previous presidential elections.


When Beth Myers, the top Romney adviser tasked with overseeing the VP search, briefed reporters on the process after Ryan was announced, it was clear that Romney had made the biggest decision of his campaign the way he has always approached high-stakes moments.

Kranish and Helman, in The Real Romney, summed up the strategic mindset that came to define Romney during his days in private equity at Bain Capital: “The Bain way, as it became known, was intensely analytical and data-driven.”

At a conference in Washington in 2007, Romney explained his approach to making decisions as having two stages. The first step was to “wallow in the data.” The second was to have a vigorous debate on the right path forward.

Romney’s search for a vice presidential candidate was a case study of “the Bain way,” a clinic in organization and planning.

Myers was assigned to the task in April, as Romney was wrapping up his final skirmishes with an exhausted and defeated Santorum. By May 1, Romney and Myers had a short list, and for two months, they went over “preliminary reports” on the candidates and spoke with each of them. On July 2, Romney had “completed folders” on each person on the short list. Romney kicked the decision around with at least nine top advisers.

“Everyone was very candid with Mitt. They offered their perspective,” Myers said. “He also talked to a lot of people outside that group informally. A lot of people.”

She repeated it again for emphasis: “He talked to a lot of people.”

Romney had made up his mind by Aug. 1. He offered Ryan the job on Aug. 5, in an elaborately arranged secret meeting, and announced his pick on Aug. 11. Even the rollout was executed without a hiccup.

Yet there was also some evidence that Romney’s choice of Ryan was shaped by shifting political fortunes. By August, it appeared that playing it safe wasn’t working. Romney was slipping in the polls, his personal approval and popularity sinking under the weight of the Obama campaign’s brutal attacks on his character and personality. Running only against Obama wasn’t cutting it.

The day before Romney announced Ryan as his running mate, the Romney campaign gathered reporters in a windowless second-floor conference room in its Boston headquarters and insisted that the polls meant little.

“Guys it’s the middle of summer. It’s the doldrums,” said a senior Romney campaign official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “If there was movement you would see it in Rasmussen and you would see it in Gallup. And we’re not seeing it,” the official said, walking reporters through a PowerPoint briefing that focused on how the Obama campaign had outspent the Romney campaign on TV advertising since April in key battleground states and cities.

In retrospect, the briefing looked like an attempt by the Romney campaign to tamp down any speculation that they were panicking as they prepared to announce Ryan for VP.

“Clearly Romney’s team feels that they had to do something. They must feel like they are losing ground. They’re clearly seeing something that I’m not privy to, but it’s enough to scare them to do this,” said a Republican operative with a long history at the Republican National Committee, who did not want to be identified. “If anyone says they’re not, they’re full of shit. Something’s there.”


Even if the policy picture looked better for Romney than many would assume, the question still remains: Can he make a campaign about Medicare work politically?

Romney, speaking to supporters at an Aug. 16 fundraiser in Greenville, S.C., acknowledged that “Usually Republicans are talking about a lot of other things” besides Medicare.

But, he said, “the president’s plan does something people normally don’t associate with Democrats and that is he cuts Medicare. … So we’re going to be going around the country talking about Medicare.”

After Romney picked Ryan, it didn’t take long for him to make clear that he would not wait for Democrats to attack him on Medicare. When the presumptive nominee and his running mate sat down with CBS News’ Bob Schieffer for their first joint interview, Romney himself went after the roughly $700 billion in cuts to Medicare that were part of the Affordable Care Act that Congress passed and Obama signed in the spring of 2010.

“There’s only one president that I know of in history that robbed Medicare, $716 billion to pay for a new risky program of his own that we call Obamacare,” Romney told Schieffer.

“What Paul Ryan and I have talked about is saving Medicare, is providing people greater choice in Medicare, making sure it’s there for current seniors. No changes, by the way, for current seniors, or those nearing retirement,” Romney said. “But looking for young people down the road and saying, ‘We’re going to give you a bigger choice.’ In America, the nature of this country has been giving people more freedom, more choices. That’s how we make Medicare work down the road.”

On Tuesday, three days after announcing Ryan as their VP candidate, the Romney campaign put out a succinct 30-second TV ad slamming Obama as an enemy of Medicare.

“You paid into Medicare for years,” the narrator says. “Every paycheck. Now when you need it, Obama has cut $716 billion from Medicare. Why? To pay for Obamacare.”

“So now the money you paid for your guaranteed health care is going to a massive new government program that’s not for you,” the ad concludes. “The Romney-Ryan plan protects Medicare benefits for today’s seniors and strengthens the plan for the next generation.”

Democrats’ heads exploded.

“Bring it,” a Democratic strategist close to the White House, who spoke about the administration’s frame of mind on the condition they not be named, told me. “I can imagine the conversation within the Romney campaign where they convince themselves that going on the offense on this issue that’s perceived as a big vulnerability is super smart.”

“But it’s not [smart],” the Democrat crowed. “It is just what they feared, a huge target on their backs.”

Obama did not immediately respond to Romney’s attacks on Medicare. His first public comments on Ryan stayed focused on budget and tax policy, and the impact on the middle class. But four days after the Ryan announcement, on Tuesday, August 14, Obama engaged on Medicare in an appearance in Dubuque, Iowa.

“They are just throwing everything at the wall to see if it sticks,” Obama said. “Here’s what you need to know: I have strengthened Medicare.”

The president said he had saved seniors millions of dollars on prescription drugs, a reference to closing the donut hole in Medicare Part D, and he said his cuts “will save Medicare money by getting rid of wasteful spending in the health care system—reforms that will not touch your Medicare benefits—not by a dime.”

“Now, Mr. Romney and his running mate have a very different plan. They want to turn Medicare into a voucher program,” Obama said, referring to Ryan’s first plan—not the Wyden-Ryan plan that Romney had endorsed—to argue it would increase costs for seniors.

Hari Sevugan, a former Obama campaign and DNC official now working for education reformer Michelle Rhee’s group StudentsFirst, said Romney’s gambit was not likely to work politically.

“Voters buy what they are already pre-disposed to believe,” Sevugan wrote in an e-mail. “Folks don’t think Democrats generally, and Obama—who has staked his presidency on expanding health care—specifically are the villains in the Medicare story. Unfortunately for Romney and Ryan that distinction belongs to them.”

Sevugan noted that Romney’s offensive against Obama was an attempt to use Democratic strategy against a Democrat.

“I think they’d be better off trying to define the issue on their own terms rather than fighting it out on Democratic ground of protecting against cuts,” Sevugan said. “Talk about Medicare in the context of broader fiscal soundness and deficits, and the courage to do something about entitlements.”


If Romney were to win the election, leading Democrats scoffed at the idea that he would ever be able to push Ryan-type reforms through Congress, particularly regarding Medicare.

“There’s no way that that will ever happen,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told me. “Even if Republicans control the Senate, and the House and the presidency, no Democratic senator could allow that to happen. It would be filibustered to death. That’s just a non-starter. And it’s a non-starter for a good reason: It won’t work.”

Durbin agreed.

“It takes time. You’ve got to put in place skilled and weathered veterans of the process who understand the budget, number one, and the politics of Capitol Hill, number two,” Durbin said. “And he is assembling a team, he would be, and it’s unlikely he could achieve that level of mastery in a short time.”

Romney himself has indicated he is not interested in trying to force reforms that don’t have bipartisan support.

“Where there are opportunities for people of reasonable minds to come together and find common ground, that’s the kind of legislation I like,” Romney told CNBC’s Larry Kudlow in July.

“The idea of one party jamming through something over the objection of the other tends to divide the nation, not make us a more safe and prosperous place. So if there’s common ground, why I’m always willing to have that kind of a conversation,” Romney said.

And yet, and yet...elections change things.

If Romney does win after having put his plan on the table this fall, that might create a mandate for reform that would give Democrats cover to support a compromise proposal, like the one Wyden sketched out with Ryan in December 2011.

Durbin acknowledged that something has to be done, but expressed pessimism about whether the small bipartisan group of senators currently working on a deficit reduction package will be able to reach an agreement on Medicare.

“We have the different options out, and I don’t know how far we can go in choosing one. We can choose, perhaps, a goal in savings, but if we have to drill down into particulars on Medicare reform, it may be beyond any group of eight senators to get that done. You need a much larger conversation,” Durbin said.

After Ryan was announced, I e-mailed Rhoades to get a sense of how risky Romney thought his pick had been. The campaign manager, caught up in the day-to-day combat of the race, was not interested in nuance.

“We’re going to win,” he wrote back. “And Mitt’s going to fix the mess.”