A while back, I asked Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, if his party's approach to controlling Medicare's spiraling costs was to scare the hell out of the old folks. The question came during a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast discussion of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial proposed overhaul of the giant health care plan for those 65 and older. It pertained to the fact the opposition had not offered its own counter plan.
Israel, a New York congressman, took umbrage at the implication, and I never got an answer beyond standard "polispeak." That is, until the announcement that Mitt Romney had selected Budget Committee Chairman Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, when carloads of Democrats began verifying the scare strategy by immediately raising the specter of a Romney administration dedicated to Medicare's destruction.
It is difficult to see how Ryan can help Romney much beyond the ultra-conservative base to which he already should be able to lay claim. Four months ago, I thought differently, even predicting Ryan would be the choice. But politics being what they are, turning the giant health program into a voucher system -- even though that wouldn't take place until 2022 -- is hardly popular among the older set or those who will join it in a few years. Ryan's presence on the ticket focuses that issue for these most consistent voters as few things could.
That isn't to say that the nation's entitlement programs don't need reforming. They most certainly do, as anyone who has been paying attention to their voracious budgetary appetites must know. But there are less politically explosive methods for curtailing the ever-expanding costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The first rule in selecting a vice president always has been to do no harm, to choose someone who generally is considered not only compatible with the presidential candidate but generally inoffensive to most of the electorate and not the sponsor of a radical plan. The second consideration, of course, is to choose a running mate that most everyone agrees is smart enough to take over the Oval Office if something tragic happens. Sen. Joe Biden fit that profile when Barack Obama tapped him. Sarah Palin, despite her charisma, did not.
Ryan is acceptable on the latter count, a vigorous, articulate, 42-year-old, seven-term congressman from Wisconsin. On the former, his presence on the GOP ticket ultimately might prove to be a major distraction, centering it on a volatile issue.
Several factors in this selection are bothersome. One is that it is a clear nod to the ideologues. Incentive came from ultra conservatives for whom the Ryan choice was validation that Romney is dedicated to their views of a smaller government. The Wall Street Journal editorial board under the direction of Paul Gigot, a sounding board for and friend of Ryan's, called for his nomination not long before it happened. Presidential elections are won in the middle, not the right or left, and too much ideology can be a dangerous thing.
Besides, it would seem to this observer that Romney would have been better off appealing more to the independent center where polls show he is losing and even more importantly to women where he trails even worse because of the perception he is against their interests on several fronts. He is shown in a widely circulated, unfriendly commercial as pledging to get rid of Planned Parenthood, for instance. A staunch male Catholic like Ryan does little to ease women's concerns.
Those among the "neo-cons" -- or whatever title they have these days -- who doubt Romney's commitment to their causes may have been placated by this selection, but the former Massachusetts governor should have been aware that the neo-cons have no place else to go. Oh sure, they could stay home and, as my grandmother used to say, cut off their noses to spite their faces and slink off to wait for another try.
It is true the Democrats have no visible long-range strategy of their own for solving the dismal growth rate, unemployment and enormous deficit beyond taxing the rich more and in the case of Ryan and Medicare "scaring the hell out of the old folks." Unfortunately, they may not need it.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)