Romney's Ryan Problem

The selection of Congressman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin for the GOP vice president slot by Governor "Mitt" Romney has served to excite the Republican base and turn on the fundraising spigot. In this way it has had a similar short-term effect as Senator John McCain's selection of then-Governor Sarah Palin. The question now is whether the longer-term impact will be as damaging.

There are reasons for concern.

The first is: "Who is Edgar Bergen and who is Charlie McCarthy?" Many conservatives, especially those of Tea Party persuasion, seem to hope that Ryan will be providing the words and Romney's lips will do the moving. This is not unreasonable, since Romney's campaign has been almost totally devoid of specifics and Ryan's budget is packed with many. Yes, their tax plans are similar in lowering rates to help the struggling wealthy. And yes, neither plan specifies what "tax expenditures" would be constrained to keep it revenue neutral. And, of course, neither wants new revenue raised.

But the Ryan budget, which Romney said he supported before the selection, has a whole host of specifics beyond the widely commented on Medicare voucher shift and sending the Medicaid program to the states without sufficient funding. So the question has been asked: "Is the Ryan budget the Romney budget?" Romney and his campaign's response is, as usual, to try to avoid a straight answer. The current formulation seems to be that the budget that is submitted to Congress in January, should he be elected, will be Romney's budget, not Ryan's, and that budget will not be released before the election. Say what? They will campaign on the greatness of the Ryan budget that was passed by the House and is therefore the GOP budget, but that is not necessarily what Romney might really do if elected? Or will Romney slice items from the Ryan budget, such as Ryan's $700+ billion cut in Medicare to fend off criticism and annoy the very conservatives the Ryan choice was meant to assuage?

Who is the ventriloquist and who is simply moving his mouth? How can you promise to talk straight when you do not know whose words you are hearing?

Let us examine one issue of particular interest: veterans. How do we know what a Romney-Ryan administration would do to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)? Well, we know that Romney mused about switching to a voucher system and was slapped down by veterans' organizations. As a result, the position on the website strongly backs keeping the VA. But that is the only specific. Indeed, you cannot find veterans as an issue on the Romney site. You can only find it by clicking on the National Defense issue and discovering the "related link" to veterans. The Romney "plan" for veterans consists of a lot of arm waving and promises to do what the Obama administration is already doing.

So, faced with that virtual void, it would seem logical to look at the Ryan budget for guidance. And what do we find in that 100-page blueprint for the nation? The word veteran appears exactly zero times. No mention, none. But the budget does call for across the board budget cuts and freezes that would result in an $11 billion cut in VA funding or 13 percent lower than the budget submitted by President Obama.

This should not be surprising. Congressman Ryan was no friend of veterans. He voted against the New GI Bill of Rights, the most important veteran legislation since its post-WWII progenitor. He voted against the two largest VA funding increases that were needed to make up for the chronic under-funding of the VA under President George W. Bush. The planning for the impact on veterans of the war in Iraq was even worse than the planning for the Iraq occupation. In the summer of 2005, the VA had to ask for a billion dollar emergency funding because, as they sheepishly admitted, their planning assumptions were based on the pre-war period. They did not calculate that there might be casualties from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq!

So, in addition to the Bergen-McCarthy problem, Romney faces the issue problem. In the absence of any specific issue positions by Romney or his disavowing of the Ryan budget, such as on Medicare cuts, the voters will naturally turn to the Ryan budget and the Ryan voting record for insight. At least on veterans' issues, that insight shows a callous disregard for our veterans and their needs.