Mitt Romney didn't just pick a running mate. He decided to undergo a brand transplant.
By tapping Paul Ryan, the high-profile mastermind of the House GOP's economic agenda, Romney appeared to concede that weeks of punishing attacks by the Obama campaign had done serious damage to his own brand. Far from the image he'd hoped to project to general election voters – of a competent business whiz hungry to work his turnaround magic on the American economy – Romney's been tagged instead by Team Obama as a job-killing outsourcing pioneer and as a tax cheat with who knows what to hide.
The Ryan pick represents a bold effort by Team Romney to hit the reset button, to forge a new impression with the electorate by transforming the endlessly malleable Romney into the pitchman for the Ryan brand. It's a risky move, with five fatal flaws that could cost Romney the election:
1) Who's the Boss?
Romney is the most awkward GOP nominee since George H.W. Bush. Ideally, he ought to have picked a dutiful, competent running-mate who wouldn't risk upstaging him. But Romney – like McCain before him – felt he needed a game changer. So he went with Ryan, a man who electrifies the party base farthan he ever could. At the ceremony where he introduced Ryan, Romney looked less like he was introducing his new side kick, and more like he was passing the torch to the party's replacement nominee – an impression Romney gaffetastically reinforced by lauding Ryan as "the next president of the United States!"
2) All Right, Right Now!?
For all the talk of Etch-a-Sketching a more centrist Romney for the general election, the Ryan pick actually drags Romney farther to the right than he was willing to venture during the primary, when he refused to go the Full Ryan. In winning the nomination, Romney left significant daylight between his own, pragmatic brand of free-market conservatism and the heartless, New-Deal rollback championed his radical future runningmate and the radically unpopular GOP-run House. Over the weekend, that daylight vanished. The Ryan Budget has become Romney's de-facto platform – and possibly his electoral albatross.
3) Don't Tax Me, Bro
Romney has been twisting in the wind over his tax returns. But the Ryan pick doesn't change the subject, it just raises more difficult questions. Like: "Governor Romney, do you really think you deserve to pay nothing in taxes?"
The Ryan plan, unlike the proposals that Romney put forward in the primaries, would zero out taxes on capital gains and dividends, the vast bulk of Romney's earnings. Now, Harry Reid may have been full of shit when he gossiped about Romney not paying taxes for 10 years; but if the Ryan plan were to pass – and top Romney adviser Ed Gillespie insisted Sunday that "of course" it would be law by now had Romney been president – Mitt would pay nothing in taxes going forward.
Don't take my word for it: Check out this exchange between Newt Gingrich and Romney during a GOP debate in Tampa, where Mitt zinged Gingrich's tax plan for its treatment of investment income:
ROMNEY: Mr. Speaker, is the tax on capital gains also 15 percent or is it zero?
ROMNEY: Well, under that – under that plan, I'd have paid no taxes in the last two years.
4) It's the Medicare, Stupid
Romney wanted this campaign to be a referendum on President Obama's handling of the economy. The Ryan pick makes this solidly a choice election – about Medicare. And that's not a showdown Romney is going to win if the Ryan plan gets a fair vetting.
Medicare recipients under the Ryan plan "would bear a much larger share of their health care costs than they would under the current program," according to the Congressional Budget Office. That's because Ryan privatizes medical insurance for the elderly, sending future seniors out into the individual market with a voucher that covers what the government now pays for each senior's Medicare.
Ryan hits the elderly two ways. First: The same money buys far less in the individual market than it does with government acting as the single payer. Right off the bat, seniors will be forced to pay more for the same coverage, with insurers reaping the windfall profit. Second: The voucher isn't pegged to healthcare inflation, which rages far above regular inflation. The voucher system would neatly cap the cost to Uncle Sam, but it would shift those spiraling costs onto seniors living on fixed incomes.
Ryan's cost shifting starts out painful – doubling the out-of-pocket costs for a 65-year-old in 2022 – but becomes absurdly draconian in the out years. In 2050, according to an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, an 85-year-old would have to spend more than $50,000 over and above their voucher to afford a policy as decent as present-day Medicare.
5) Even Reagan Republicans Call Ryan's Approach "Class Warfare"
Privatizing Medicare gets all of the attention, but it's far from the craziest thing in the Ryan budget. Just take a look at Ryan's spending cuts. Federal discretionary spending – excluding Social Security and health-care entitlements, but including defense – now stands at 12 percent of GDP. The Ryan plan would cut this spending in half by 2022 and nearly in half again by 2050, until it hits just 3.5 percent.
The CBO notes of the Ryan’s budget that "no proposals were specified that would generate that path." That’s because the Ryan budget is a fantasy document. Discretionary federal spending has exceeded 8 percent of GDP in every year since World War II. To reach the Ryan target, Romney – who has called for a massive increase in defense spending – would have to savage programs like college loans, food stamps, and low-income housing to pay for a new round of tax cuts for the wealthiest.
Take it from David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's former budget director, whom I interviewed last year: "Ryan takes out the ax and goes after the very small part of the budget that’s either discretionary spending or means-tested programs for the poor – which is the last thing you ought to cut, not the first thing," Stockman said. "That just doesn’t make any sense. It can’t work. And it simply exacerbates class warfare within the fiscal debate."
The trouble with rebranding Romney as Ryan isn't that it's a bold step for the campaign. It's that it's out of line with the American electorate.
But at least the Koch brothers appear happy with the choice. Their dark-money group, Americans For Prosperity, announced a $27 million ad buy on Ryan's signature issue, the debt, four days before Romney announced his running mate to the general public.