08/16/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can Paul Ryan Be a Progressive Hero? How Romney's Choice Could Win the Left, the Right and the White House

No sooner had Mitt Romney announced his running mate than political strategists for both sides began spinning him into a straightjacket.

But for once, they were dressing him in the same clothes. Both sides cast Paul Ryan as a conservative ideologue who would dramatically cut the size, cost, and power of the federal government, expand domestic energy development, and allow individuals and companies to succeed or fail based on their own initiative.

True, Mitt Romney said that Ryan's medicine would "preserve and protect Medicare and Social Security, and keep them there for future generations." But the way Ryan proposes to get there is by cutting.


The right bets this version of Ryan-the-Conservative will activate the GOP's anti-tax and anti-government base, open the wallets of the party's SuperPAC donors, and satisfy Wall Street that the GOP will control the nation's spending.

But the left thinks Ryan-the-Ruthless will frighten young and old voters to the polls to save Medicare, Social Security, and the environment, and put critical swing states like Florida and Ohio safely in Democratic hands. The "cut Social Security and Medicare to save them" case works in the world of think tanks, but not on Main Street, they say.

The Democrats are probably right. If Ryan plays the role scripted for him by his own allies, Obama's forces can effectively cast him as a radical. Ryan-the Reckless will pull down Romney-the-Rational, and Obama-the-Centrist will triumph at the polls.

But if Ryan steps out of the straightjacket, he can give Romney an unparalleled advantage: the capacity to fashion an agenda that can attract both the left and right.

Ryan is trusted by conservatives, because he tells their truth. But he is feared by the center and hated by the left, because so far, he also panders to the right's delusions.

By himself, Romney can't budge from conservative political correctness. But with Ryan, he can. Together, they can do something almost unprecedented in recent politics. They can tell Americans the truth.

How can Romney-Ryan attract the center and left, while maintaining the conservative base? By taking one more bold step, and telling the nation three simple truths.

The first truth is that conservatives are right -- as a nation, we are out of money and deep in debt.

The second truth is that liberals are also right -- we can't pay off our debt by extracting it from the poor, the middle class, or the environment.

The third truth is that to meet both our economic and our social obligations, we can't just spend-baby-spend or drill-baby-drill, as the left and right propose. Nor can we force the nation into a right-wing social straightjacket that idealizes the 1950s.

Instead, America needs to create value again. For that to happen, we need to change the way we tax, spend, and grow.

To a growing set of leaders on both the left and right, these three truths are self-evident. This October 2-3, a month after the end of the major party conventions and a month before Election Day, they will gather in New York for what they call the "UnConvention." The gathering will open with a theme of left-right unity from former Secretary of State George Shultz, then launch into a genuine search for solutions where 800 business, labor, Tea Party, environmental, and progressive leaders can learn from one another's truths.

If Romney and Ryan want to win the conservative base, but lose the election, they can embrace the straightjacket both sides have woven for the prospective vice president. He can be positioned as a conservative stalwart devoted to saving Social Security and Medicare through cuts, cuts, and more cuts, no matter the impact on the poor, middle class, students, senior citizens, and the environment.

Or Romney and Ryan can tell the truths of both the left and the right -- the truths most of us already know. First, we can't spend our way back to prosperity. Second, we can't just cut our way there either. Third, we need to innovate, and earn our way forward. That requires that we wind down all taxes on prosperity and all subsidies on pollution, so we can start creating real value again.

Image Credit: Patrick Degan

Bill Shireman is President and CEO of Future 500, a non-profit that builds alliances between business and civic leaders on the right and the left. Future 500 and CR Magazine will jointly convene the Commit! UnConvention this October 2-3, in New York City.