Mitt Romney has just made the same mistake John McCain made in picking a vice presidential candidate that folks will talk more about than they will talk about the top of the ticket. Romney has flip-flopped on so many issues, and seems so inchoate in his core views, that the clarity of running mate Paul Ryan will now define him.
Conversely, what has always been clear about the Obama-Biden ticket is that Obama defines in people's minds what the ticket stands for. What is less recognized but important is that Vice President Joe Biden is the one who has built out the policy parameters of the president's jobs and infrastructure bill, which will be the key weapon that Obama uses against the Romney-Ryan team.
The vice-presidential debate on October 11 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, will likely be the most important of the ticket-vs.-ticket debates. This is because the divide between Paul Ryan's political agenda, as defined by his budget, and the smart investment strategy that Joe Biden and his former economic adviser Jared Bernstein have been pushing, will be starker than any of the issues that Obama and Romney will debate.
The media are now saturated with good analyses of how Ryan's budget would sculpt America's budgetary future. The Washington Post's Brad Plumer has a particularly nice rundown showing what the consequences of the Ryan budget would be: raising $2.2 trillion less in taxes, and spending $5.3 trillion less, over 10 years than the Obama budget. To be brief, federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid would be slashed -- but as Plumer points out, Ryan would cut income-security programs for the poor by 16 percent, transportation expenses and investment by 25 percent, spending on science and technology by 6 percent, and investment in education, training, and other social services by 33 percent.
At the same time, Ryan wants to reduce the Obama Administration's cuts to defense spending growth and, along with Romney, wants to boost defense spending, perhaps pegging defense spending to a specific percentage of GDP regardless of rising or falling threats. Romney has suggested a peg of 4 percent of GDP, which would boost defense spending above current levels by another $100 billion, according to Time's Mark Thompson.
Back to the incumbents in the White House. One of the tensions around the president as economic policy proposals were being discussed in 2009 was a macro-economic, financial-sector revitalization track, which economic adviser Lawrence Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner advocated, and a package of combined initiatives including new regulations and micro-economic smart investments in key infrastructure projects advocated by Joe Biden's team, particularly Jared Bernstein as well as former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker and Obama campaign economic policy adviser Austan Goolsbee.
Early in the Obama Administration, the president favored the financial sector over infrastructure, housing, and other sectors where investments could create robust long-term returns for the economy. The auto sector and some of the president's investments in renewable energy projects are notable and important exceptions. On the whole, however, Obama and his team resuscitated a financial sector with only minor regulatory adjustments and, for the most part, allowed the failed management of bailed-out banks and financial houses to remain in place.
Within a year of Obama's financial-sector bailout, more than 5,000 employees at bailed-out firms were receiving bonuses of more than $1 million. While I'm sure that some of these folks have donated to Obama and the Democratic Party, one can assume that a majority of those whom Obama saved in the financial sector are now fueling Romney's fundraising juggernaut.
Three years into his administration, the president realized that the 2011 "Summer of Recovery" was a bust. The policy path that his macro-economic-focused team had charted was not generating the jobs recovery his political future or the nation needed.
So the president shifted toward a jobs-and-infrastructure set of proposals that Bernstein had taken the lead in crafting, and which built on job-generating, infrastructure-investment proposals pushed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the New America Foundation (disclosure: I'm a senior fellow there).
His new course was the one Joe Biden had been advocating since the beginning of the administration -- policies designed to keep people in their homes and working, focused on smart investments in nationally vital infrastructure projects that would deliver returns for generations. Those policies would also incrementally shift the economy away from the financial sector and toward a more balanced system that placed a premium on science and technology, inbound investment, and high-wage infrastructure platforms that the private sector alone could not produce.
Outside of economic policy, there have been a number of challenges -- the war in Afghanistan, nuclear materials management and WMD proliferation, stabilizing Iraq's political convulsions, START ratification, even gay marriage -- where Biden and his team quietly defined the position Obama either adopted or evolved toward.
The contrast with the Republican ticket couldn't be clearer. Whereas the Obama-Biden plan calls for smart investments in technology, science, and infrastructure, Romney and Ryan slash spending. Whereas Obama and Biden believe that the future of the country can't be improved without deeper investments in education and educational reform, Romney and Ryan endorse massive slashes to education budgets.
I happened to run into Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren Sunday and asked her views on the Ryan budget -- and she made a point quite similar to one I had written a while back: that the Ryan budget is a plan that forfeits the future and global leadership to China.
In August 2012, Warren lamented the pathetically low level of investment America makes in its own infrastructure compared China. Huffington Post's Ryan Grim wrote about Warren's comments and Senator Scott Brown's lame response:
Warren told me yesterday that Ryan's plan would cut $500 billion over 10 years from investments in science and technology support and basic research as well as education and training programs. She is right. Ryan's plan, which now defines the Romney-Ryan GOP ticket, outlines a path to a much dumber America. It forfeits the future to nations like China, India, Brazil, and Turkey, which are making massive investments in educating their youth, training their middle-aged work forces, building new major infrastructure projects, and supporting science and technology advancements. Comparing America to China is vital if America wants to compete. Senator Brown gets this wrong, as does the Paul Ryan budget.
Republican Scott Brown slammed his Democratic rival for U.S. Senate on Friday, accusing Elizabeth Warren of "comparing us to China." Warren, in a campaign ad and on the trail, noted that China spends 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure investment, while the United States spends less than 2.5 percent.
"China is making the investments in roads and bridges and communications that will give a real competitive advantage to China's businesses. America's businesses deserve the same," she said.
Nobel Laureate in Physics Arno Penzias once said that the Internet would make smart people smarter and dumb people dumber. The internet offers an echo chamber and a bigger footprint to any group's views, smart or dumb.
America has budget challenges and these need to be met, but to forsake investment in the future assures a dumber future for the nation. This is what is at stake, and the debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan is the vital exchange that Americans must hear in deciding between a course that builds on America's innovation strengths or one that handicaps the competitiveness of the country and delivers a much lower quality of life and hope for advancement for American citizens.