Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's vice presidential nominee, delivered a forceful keynote speech at the Republican convention last night. Ryan, the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, is known for his policy chops, and his speech was framed as an attack on the current administration's poor economic policies: He went after President Obama's health care plan, the stimulus bill he signed, and the debt reduction commission whose recommendations he ignored.
But what Ryan didn't talk about what was he and Mitt Romney, the man at the top of the Republican ticket, would offer instead. Which is problematic — not just because of what was left unspoken, but because of what both men have already said and done. If you dislike Obama's health care overhaul, his stimulus plan, and his refusal to endorse the recommendations put forth by the debt commission, it's hard to see how the Romney/Ryan ticket would be much better.
Yes, Romney has promised to repeal ObamaCare. But as governor of Massachusetts, Romney not only passed the state-based model for the president's health care plan, he repeatedly touted it as a "model for the nation." Those who know his campaign operation say he remains proud of RomneyCare. And he still touts the Massachusetts plan—not only as evidence of his legislative leadership but as proof of his ability to provide effective health policy solutions for his constituents. Just last weekend, Romney responded to a question about women's health by telling Fox News, "Look, I'm the guy that was able to get health care for all of the women and men in my state. They're just talking about it at the federal level. We actually did something, and we did it without cutting Medicare and without raising taxes."
It's a telling remark. Romney is not just bragging about RomneyCare. He is not just suggesting that despite the many ways in which it is virtually identical to ObamaCare, it is a good policy. He is saying that RomneyCare is better than ObamaCare, and that he is better than Obama, because he put his health policy plan into action. That's why he believes people should vote for him: because he made his version of Obama's health reform a success. He doesn't sound like someone who wants to repeal Obama's health care law. He sounds like someone who wants to tweak it, streamline it, and try to make it work.
As for stimulus, Romney has made much out of his opposition to the president's $800 billion economic adrenaline shot. But he's not exactly opposed to similar stimulus plans. Not only did he praise the $150 billion stimulus passed by President Bush, he also declared shortly after that "a second stimulus was needed." When that stimulus arrived under President Obama, Romney quibbled with the tax, spending, and implementation details, but agreed that "the stimulus that was passed in early 2009 will accelerate the timing of the start of the recovery," just not as much as if the plan had been designed differently. When I brought this up with his campaign at the end of last year, a policy staffer confirmed that Romney does support stimulus in certain circumstances.
And what about the president's record on debt? It would be hard to be worse than Obama, who, despite griping about Bush's deficits has managed to outdo his predecessor. But Ryan didn't simply criticize the president's overall record on debt. He complained that Obama ignored the recommendations of his own bipartisan debt commission. "He created a bipartisan debt commission," Ryan said. "They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way, and then did exactly nothing." But Ryan was a full-fledged member of that commission. And he voted against its recommendations.
Like Chris Christie, Paul Ryan's speech touched on the need for leaders to communicate difficult truths with the public, to speak fairly and honestly about the problems facing the nation. But it's not enough to simply to simply identify the problems and criticize the current administration for failing to solve them. Ryan knows this, and has taken considerable advantage of it. He rose to prominence in large part because of his willingness to put forth relatively detailed budget plans and entitlement reform proposals. But the Romney campaign has done no such thing and in fact has gone out of its way to distance itself from Ryan's signature plans — while playing up opposition to Obama's.
"We will not duck the tough issues," Ryan promised last night, "we will lead. We will not spend four years blaming others, we will take responsibility." Maybe that's what he and Romney think they will do. But in the campaign so far, that's not what they are doing.