In choosing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, presidential contender Mitt Romney has tapped one of the GOP's rising stars. The earnest 42-year-old blends conservative credentials that appeal to the Tea Party with a congenial, even methodical demeanor that would be fitting for a vice president.
Since he's chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan can offer Romney detailed knowledge of the government's finances—which Romney has vowed to hack away at. But Ryan also presents several liabilities for for Romney, because of positions he has staked out over the years in Congress.
Unlike other VP candidates Romney could have chosen--such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Florida Senator Marco Rubio—Ryan has spelled out some of the painful trade-offs that will be necessary to get Washington's finances in order. To some extent, Ryan deserves credit for being one of the few Washington politicians who has dared to tell voters that the government is going to do less for them in the future.
But some of Ryan's specific proposals are highly controversial, which is sure to make them a target of criticism by President Obama and his Democratic allies. Here are a few of the ideas Ryan has proposed in the 2013 federal budget he drafted, and in his "Path To Prosperity" report, which is available on his web site:
Medicare cutbacks. Ryan wants to reform Medicare by turning it into a "premium support" plan in which the government pays every retiree a subsidy they'd use to purchase private insurance. For people already in retirement or near it, Medicare would stay the same. But the new plan would affect everybody entering the programs starting in a decade or so, and it would gradually raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67.
In his 2013 budget, Ryan doesn't say how much the government subsidy would be, which is obviously a key detail. But an earlier version of his plan proposed subsidies that would cover less than half the healthcare costs of a typical retiree. The rest would have to come out of pocket.
Medicaid cutbacks. Like Romney, Ryan wants to reform Medicaid by making "block grants" to states, which they can spend as they wish. But unlike Romney, Ryan has attached numbers to his plan, and they show that most states would end up with less overall money to spend. Ryan insists they'd make up some of the shortfall simply by spending the money more efficiently than the feds would. But the Congressional Budget Office crunched Ryan's numbers and found that the cutbacks would be so large that most states would have to cut Medicaid benefits, find new funding, or both.
Tax cuts. Ryan wants to simplify the tax code by condensing the current six brackets to just two: 10 percent and 25 percent. That would cut the top tax rate by 30 percent, which is even more generous than Romney's plan, which is to lower each of the six current tax brackets by 20 percent. Ryan also wants to "broaden" the tax base, which basically means eliminating loopholes and deductions so that some people who end up exempt from taxes—including many lower earners—would end up paying something.
More defense spending. Ryan would rescind the automatic cuts in defense spending set to kick in starting in 2013, and raise defense spending instead.
Big cuts everywhere else. In order to cut taxes and raise defense outlays, Ryan's budget calls for huge cuts in "discretionary" spending, which includes everything from highway and airport funding to disaster relief and NASA. His budget doesn't get into details, though.
The Obama campaign has already attacked Ryan's policies as "radical" and "reckless," saying that Ryan wants to "end Medicare as we know it." In a statement, Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, said that Ryan subscribes to "the flawed theory that new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while placing greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy."
Ryan has his charms, however, because he doesn't fit the profile of an elitist, Romneyesque Republican. He's a Catholic from a blue-collar district in Wisconsin who characterizes cutbacks in government aid to the needy as a humane way to end the cycle of dependency. That stokes Tea Partiers and far-right conservatives. Yet Ryan is bookish and mild-mannered, which makes him less threatening to independents and centrists. Political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia lists Ryan's advantages as being articulate, young and energetic. His main disadvantage: "Has touched the third rail of politics too many times."
Romney surprised many analysts by picking Ryan, showing that he's more serious than many have assumed about tackling the nation's gargantuan debt. Ryan's budget proposals include the kind of unpleasant details that Romney would probably rather not talk about until after the elections. But budget experts in both parties have credited Ryan for framing the problem in a realistic way and taking some political risks to highlight the enormity of the problem. So far, nothing like that has happened in the presidential race.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.