08/19/2012 06:31 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2012

Paul Ryan: Good for the Democrats?

The selection of Paul Ryan has changed the dynamics of the 2012 election in ways that, for the moment, seem to advantage President Obama and the Democrats. It has focused attention on a few key issues that should be Democrats' strength while diverting the spotlight from the slow economic recovery that is Obama's Achilles heel. Do most Americans really want to voucherize Medicare and privatize Social Security? Do we want drastic cuts in what's left of other social supports in order to give even larger tax cuts to millionaires? Most polls suggest not, and bumper stickers have already been appearing: Save Medicare, vote Democratic.

The selection of Ryan (as the cliché goes, you may disagree with him, but the man has his principles) has already forced Mitt Romney into a more visible embrace of positions that he would prefer to fudge. Alternatively, when Romney is pressed on whether he truly supports this or that extreme Ryan position, he equivocates, reminding voters of his trademark flip-flops. Seeing Ryan on the Republican ticket has also compelled Obama and the Democrats to mount a more consistent defense of core programs such as Medicare and Social Security -- which, only yesterday, they were prepared to toss on the pyre of deficit reduction.

Meanwhile, closer inspection of Ryan's own deficit reduction plans has smoked out the fact that his numbers are entirely phony. This past week, former Reagan budget director David Stockman, of all people, was moved to publish an op-ed taking indignant offense at Ryan's bogus arithmetic. Stockman should know: It was his phony numbers that projected revenue gains from supply-side tax cuts that would more than compensate for the larger deficits. He later admitted that the whole ploy was a Trojan horse to shrink government. These Republican budget finaglers are good for true confessions only after the fact. One awaits Ryan's memoirs. But I digress.

It's also the case that while the selection of Ryan was intended to rev up the conservative base (he's the thinking person's Sarah Palin, the reasoning goes), in the end he may not be quite the right sort of conservative. For the most part, it is social conservatism that titillates the far-right base. While Ryan is a consistent social conservative, he is more vividly a policy-wonk fiscal conservative. That tends to be less energizing (not too many of the Fox/Tea Party crowd go wild over budget balance), and it also puts front and center issues that don't play to the right's strengths. At the same time, Ryan is a true zealot on women's issues, but in a way that outrages women independents more than it motivates the far right. He's not just against abortion; he opposes in vitro fertilization and contraception. And he even voted for legislation that narrowed the definition of rape to "forcible rape" (as opposed to the gentle sort).

Ultimately, however, whether the Ryan selection truly backfires will depend on three big questions:

  1. Is the American public really capable of paying attention to big, consequential, complex issues? Ryan is lauded as a Serious Man capable of serious conversations, but are the voters serious? If they are, they will notice that his numbers just don't parse.
  2. Relatedly, will the Romney campaign's strategy of the Big Lie throw just enough smoke on the budget debate that the voters just throw up their hands (or maybe just throw up?): Doesn't Obama also cut Medicare? Isn't Social Security so at risk that the Republican proposals are actually about "saving" it and not destroying it? Isn't the dreaded Sequester Obama's fault? No, no, and no, but only if you're motivated to closely follow this stuff.
  3. Will Obama stay the course and keep defending core, popular Democratic positions, despite the undertow of the Democratic deficit hawks and their cheerleaders in the media, who keep mixing the message?

Last week brought yet another spate of thought-leader columns lauding the zombie-like Bowles-Simpson majority plan as the liberal pole (God help us) of a grown-up debate with the Republican Ryan plan and Erskine Bowles as just the candidate to succeed Tim Geithner as treasury secretary. I am sorry to say that even the estimable Ezra Klein is evidently in this camp. Around The Washington Post, viewing Bowles as God's gift to Obama is taken as evidence of political seriousness. The more praise Bowles-Simpson gets as the supposed Democratic position, the more it undercuts Obama's capacity to defend Social Security and Medicare, and the more the public concludes that both parties would cut valued social insurance in ways whose details are too wonky to matter.

So, yes, the Ryan nomination is potentially a gift to Democrats. But it remains to be seen whether the public, the media, and the Obama campaign will maximize its potential.

Update: Economist Paul Krugman has written a strong takedown of Ryan's budget numbers. Read it here.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.