To Republicans, Rep. Paul Ryan, the new darling on the political trail as Mitt Romney's veep choice, is a courageous intellectual visionary.
To Democrats, the Wisconsin Republican is a heartless GOP think tank prodigy who would get rid of Medicare in exchange for vouchers, cut Medicaid benefits for the poor and falsely pushes the idea that tax benefits for the rich trickle down to the middle class.
So, what's the truth? Examination of Ryan's record and his budget proposals indicates the truth is somewhere in the middle. Ryan is thoughtful about the nation's fiscal future and willing to take unpopular positions to get the country on a more solid financial footing. But Ryan is also a solid conservative with little sympathy for those who aren't well off and believes that individuals, not government, are responsible for their own well-being.
A staunch Catholic, he opposes all abortions and same-sex marriage and fought the repeal of the don't-ask-don't-tell policy toward gays in the military. Thus, he is against "big government" except for the military but he also wants government to implement his conservative social policies. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said his budget proposals would be so devastating to the poor as to be almost immoral.
Ryan voted in 2008 to bail out Wall Street but now declares big banks should be broken up. He also voted to permit commercial and investment banks to merge, which many economists now think was a serious mistake. Last fall he was willing to let the government default on its loans, which would be unprecedented, unless Democrats accepted deeper cuts in domestic programs such as food stamps.
Ryan proposed providing vouchers to seniors (exempting those currently 55 and older) to choose health care insurance providers and eventually phasing out Medicare. While Medicare costs must be reduced as more baby boomers age and the program runs out of money, Ryan's proposal is one of the most unpopular.
President Barack Obama would take $716 billion from revamping Medicare to help pay for his health care plan, which has yet to go fully into effect. Yet the Medicare trustees said Obama's health care plan improves the financial future of Medicare. Romney's plan would mean seniors would have to pay an average of $300 more a year for Medicare. Ryan would take $716 billion from Medicare to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, arguing rich people create jobs.
That may have been true decades ago, but economists say George W. Bush's tax cuts went mostly into private savings while more jobs were created under Bill Clinton's higher tax rates.
Ryan wants to preserve the $775 billion annual defense budget, which does not include paying for the decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Romney is talking about military action to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. At the same time Ryan wants across-the-board cuts for most domestic programs. That includes Medicaid, which pays for health care for the poor. Ryan says states with large Medicaid programs should pay for them, but most states are struggling with budgets that far exceed revenues.
David Stockman, who was Ronald Reagan's budget director, wrote in The New York Times that while Ryan is a nice guy, Ryan's budget proposal is a "fairy tale" that won't work and won't cut the deficit.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, says Ryan's budget is "an uncompromising Tea Party manifesto" that cuts programs at the expense of seniors and investing in children's education and forces middle-class taxpayers to pay more.
Romney's choice of Ryan as his running mate says a lot about Romney. If voters elect him in November, they should understand they are not electing a moderate. Whatever his past beliefs were, Mitt Romney is now an avowed conservative in the Tea Party sense of the word.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.)