Democrats believe fervently in the folly of Paul Ryan's ideas, yet somehow can't speak about them truthfully.
They are confident they can destroy Ryan not because they think they can win the debate over his proposals on the merits, but because they are certain they can distort those proposals with impunity.
Mitt Romney's inspiring (and inspired) choice of the Wisconsin budget maven as his running mate had commentators on both sides welcoming a clear choice for the country. Romney had done us a favor, they said, in ensuring such a stark clash of visions. The League of Women Voters would approve.
This Hallmark sentiment is nice, though naive. The battle of ideas will be as unsightly and dishonest as the battle over Bain Capital. If Democrats will lie about Mitt Romney killing a woman, it's only a matter of scale to lie about him loosing a near-genocidal assault on America's seniors.
Immediately upon Ryan's selection, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina released a statement that recalled author Mary McCarthy's put-down of left-wing playwright Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"
Messina scored Ryan for his "budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy" (except that there aren't tax cuts, budget-busting or otherwise), for bringing to an "end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher system" (except there's no voucher, and Medicare benefits would stay exactly the same), and for "shifting thousands of dollars in health care costs to seniors" (except the Ryan plan doesn't apply to today's seniors, nor will it shift costs onto the seniors of the future).
The Democrats never want to admit three things about Ryan's Medicare plan. First, that it doesn't affect anyone over age 55 and won't kick in for another 10 years. Conceding this makes the job of frightening elderly voters trickier, so it is best ignored.
Second, that the current version of the Ryan plan gives future beneficiaries the option to keep traditional Medicare. They will choose among a menu of insurance plans, including a fee-for-service federal option, all of which will be required to offer at least the same level of benefits as Medicare now. The federal government will pay everyone's premiums up to a level matching the second-lowest-priced plan in a given area. There's no reason a beneficiary will have to pay more (although he can choose a pricier plan and pay the difference).
Third, that Ryan and President Barack Obama cap overall Medicare spending at the same level. The president is adamant that the growth of Medicare is unsustainable and rightly so. Everyone acknowledges the program is the foremost driver of our long-term debt. Both Ryan and the president use the same formula of roughly GDP growth plus inflation for setting Medicare's global budget. The difference is that the president wants a bureaucratic board to get the savings through arbitrary limits on prices that ultimately will limit access to care, while Ryan wants to get the savings through competition and choice.
The Democrats' demagoguery should be further crimped by the fact that they voted $700 billion in cuts in Medicare to fund Obamacare, not in the far-off future, but right now. Ryan preserved the cuts in his budget but set them aside for the Medicare trust fund. Mitt Romney wants to repeal Obamacare in its entirety, including the Medicare cuts.
What the Ryan plan offers, most fundamentally, is a vision of a reformed entitlement state that won't require massive new tax increases or debt to fund. For all the talk of the "radicalism" of his budget, it keeps taxes at a slightly higher level of GDP than they have averaged over the past several decades. Ten years from now, federal spending still would be at a higher level of GDP than it was at the end of the Clinton years.
This vision now at the center of the campaign deserves a serious, honest debate, and will assuredly not get it.