Paul Ryan is either:
a) the evil Republican extremist whose budget plan would slash social programs for the poor and middle class while giving the rich more tax breaks, or
b) a forthright Republican policy wonk who is willing to make the hard choices necessary to balance the federal budget, end a culture of dependence and save the American dream for our children and grandchildren.
Alternative a) is the one that President Obama and the Democrats are selling. Alternative b) is the one that former Gov. Mitt Romney and the Republicans are selling. The side that makes more sales to more independent voters is the one that will win November's election.
We don't believe that Rep. Ryan's budget is the right medicine for the current economy. Government austerity is not the way to put more Americans to work or revive an economy that is becalmed in the doldrums. Europe has cut budgets and driven itself back into recession.
But over the longer term, Ryan is right that the United States must bring entitlement spending into line, particularly as the baby boomers retire. Medicare must be reformed. We would not privatize it for those currently under 55, as he would, but he's raising the right issues. For that we give him credit, and we give Romney credit for picking a running mate who has instantly refocused the presidential campaign on the most important issues facing the nation.
The voters keep saying that the economy and federal budget deficits are the most important issues. Not gay rights or chicken sandwiches or guns or Obama's birth certificate or Romney's tax returns.
Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate has made a serious debate about taxing, spending and the economy more likely. At the same time, Romney has galvanized both liberals who despise Ryan's policies and conservatives who adore them. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground about Ryan's fiscal ideas.
For that reason, Romney is being praised for a bold choice. On the surface, that's true. But the book on Romney is that he is a data-driven decision-maker who takes every bit of information available to him into account. In addition to Ryan's fiscal conservatism, Romney must also have weighed Ryan's passion, affability, speaking ability, youthful good looks and his being from a swing state. For all those reasons, Ryan was an excellent choice.
Here's hoping the Ryan factor does turn the campaign toward substance. So far it has nowhere to go but up.