Conservative activists wanted to see Rep. Paul Ryan on the Romney ticket because they hoped Ryan would add vision and substance to what had essentially been a negative, policy-free campaign. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, is widely known as a conservative reformer. He's the author of the Roadmap for America’s future, an influential GOP budget document calling for spending and entitlement reform, and he rose to prominence on the strength of both his policy vision and the skill with which he sold it to his own wary party.
When Ryan first introduced his budget plan, he struggled to find a dozen congressional supporters and GOP leadership kept plenty of distance from Ryan’s ideas. Just a few years later, Ryan watched as nearly every single Republican legislator in the House voted to pass the same plan. Ryan wasn’t just a talker. He was a leader. And when conservative activists and intellectuals called for Ryan to take the number two spot on the Republican ticket, they were hoping to see the transformation of another timid GOP leader.
But that transformation hasn’t happened. Rather than remake Romney’s campaign in Ryan’s image, the Romney campaign has remade Ryan in its own.
Ryan's rise owes to his willingness to lay out his legislative agenda rather than simply saying no to his opponent’s. Indeed, doing this was central to his message. “It is not enough to simply oppose flawed legislation,” Ryan has said. “I believe that the party of ideas must propose alternative solutions.”
But the Romney campaign has done no such thing. If anything, the opposite is true. At the convention, Romney, somewhat amazingly, was even less substantive than usual. Ryan has been no better. Indeed, he’s given Romney cover. Over the weekend, Ryan helped defend Romney’s decision to avoid releasing the details of his tax plan. He’s also become the point person for the Romney campaign’s troublesome attacks on President Obama’s Medicare cuts. Lots of Republicans made this argument during the ObamaCare debates, but Ryan didn’t go so far as to simply declare Medicare cuts to be bad. He complained then as now that the Medicare cuts were being used to fund a new government program, and he also charged correctly that the administration was double counting, saying that the money saved from Medicare would both shore up the program’s trust fund and fund new spending on the law’s health insurance subsidies. And Ryan’s most frequent criticism was not that the law changes Medicare, but that it won’t actually reduce the deficit. Ryan’s ultimate concern was that entitlements cost too much — not that it was wrong to cut them. Indeed, Ryan’s own budget plan included the exact same Medicare cuts.
Now Ryan is sharing a ticket with a candidate who has said it’s “wrong” to cut Medicare, and promised to reverse Obama’s cuts. And since joining the Romney campaign, Ryan hasn’t led. He’s talked, and followed. It's not even as if the two have blended: While Ryan has picked up Romney's issues and run with them, Romney has tried to distance himself from Ryan's signature proposal: his budget plan.
It’s not just Medicare. It’s defense spending too.
Ryan has never been serious about restraining the defense budget. But his budget proposal called for a much smaller increase than Romney’s. And as Cato’s Christopher Preble has pointed out, Ryan’s plan “spelled out specific proposals for cutting domestic spending, both discretionary programs and entitlements, that would allow the Pentagon’s budget to grow above the current baseline.” The same can’t be said about Romney.
At the end of last summer’s debt ceiling fight, Ryan voted for a plan that would reduce planned future defense spending if a deficit reduction committee failed to agree on an alternative deficit reduction proposal. Ryan was pretty happy with the plan when it passed. “The Budget Control Act represents a victory for those committed to controlling government spending and growing our economy,” Ryan said at the time. “I applaud Speaker Boehner’s leadership in stopping tax increases on job creators, rejecting President Obama’s demands for a blank check to keep borrowing, and advancing real spending cuts and controls.”
Predictably, the committee failed. Both Ryan and Romney are now running hard against the fallback defense cuts — known as sequestration — that are now scheduled to occur next year, and blaming Obama for letting them happen. Romney seems almost oblivious to Ryan’s vote: "I thought it was a mistake on the part of the White House to propose them," he’s said. "I think it was a mistake for Republicans to go along with it.” Ryan, of course, was one of the 174 Republicans who did.
Ryan has only been on the Romney ticket a short time, but he's already gone along with a lot. We probably shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, he’s always been willing to follow the party, voting for an unfunded expansion of Medicare, protesting little as the Bush administration ran up massive budget deficits and record debt. Ryan willingly fell in line during the Bush years. Now he's doing it again. We've seen a transformation — not in Romney, but in Ryan.