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Unpacking Paul Ryan’s Centrist Reinvention

The early consensus on Paul Ryan’s speech is that he was speaking to conservatives rather than the country. And Ryan certainly did his share of anti-Obama fulminating. Still, I heard the speech as much more of a lurch to the center than the press generally gave him credit for.

When pundits on either team touted Ryan’s VP credentials, they often talked up his skill at selling his radical budget blueprint, which the GOP has embraced and which Mitt Romney supposedly had to defend. But Ryan did the opposite: He largely cut bait on his budget plan and tried to convince voters he and Romney aren’t the least bit threatening.

The most obvious instance of this was Medicare—no surprise given that it’s the Ryan plan’s biggest vulnerability, and that it was shaping up to be Romney’s as well. Last night, the man who wants to replace the Medicare guarantee with a voucher that would stick seniors with thousands in extra costs sounded altogether like the head of the AARP:

Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama. An obligation we have to our parents and grandparents is being sacrificed, all to pay for a new entitlement we didn’t even ask for. The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we’re going to stop it. …
A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my Mom’s generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours. 

But the fiscal reinvention ran much broader than this. The Ryan budget includes enormous regressive tax cuts, which polls consistently show no popular appetite for. Ryan didn’t use the phrase “tax cut” a single time in his speech. The Ryan budget massively cuts spending on the poor and working poor, by block-granting Medicaid and imposing savage cuts in domestic discretionary spending that would starve programs like Pell Grants, Head Start, and food stamps. Not only was there no mention of these ideas (except for the vaguest, passing allusion to capping federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, a number that’s utterly meaningless out of budgetary context), Ryan actually styled himself a champion of the poor and defenseless: 

We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.

Above all, whereas Ryan has made dismantling the social safety net the central project of his years in government—he has famously vowed to stop the safety net from becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency”—last night he proclaimed himself a champion of social insurance: “We can make the safety net safe again,” he said in his closing flourish.  

Defending Medicare against raids by cynical pols, giving tax cuts the cold shoulder, preserving benefits for the poor and vulnerable, standing tall against assaults on the safety net—these all sound to me like a pitch for swing voters, Ryan’s personal paper-trail be damned. 

It is, in the end, very likely the reason Romney picked Ryan as his running mate. Romney has always known he needed a centrist makeover to have a shot at winning. But because he never had credibility with conservatives, he never felt secure enough to make his move. 

What Ryan brings to the ticket is credibility in spades. Who’s going to criticize Romney for getting all weepy about the mommy-state with Paul Ryan on the ticket? Better yet, who’s going to criticize Mr. Safety Hammock himself? Last night Paul Ryan retired his radical assault on government because it was necessary (at least during the campaign), and because he could. If this holds, his selection will have been a success even if he does nothing else for the ticket. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber