In an interview on 60 Minutes with Scott Pelley, Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama for slashing $716 billion from the Medicare program. When he was asked by Pelley that Paul Ryan, his chosen running mate, also cut $716 billion from Medicare, Romney declared “I’m the guy running for president, not him.”
It is, therefore, clear that Romney does not want to be defined by the proposal put forward by Ryan. Because the Ryan budget, especially his plan to turn Medicare into a voucher is so unpopular, Romney has decided not only to distance himself from those proposals but also to muzzle him.
Ryan has been prevented from pushing his ideas on the campaign trail because Romney has been reluctant to fully adopt the plan. Ryan, therefore, has been relegated to the background, thereby the intense interest that the media had in him in the beginning has faded. But even with his increasing disappearance, he has emerged as a political albatross for the Romney campaign, particularly among seniors.
Ryan has been popular among conservative activists and the Republican establishment in Washington D.C. His popularity stems from his proposed budget, which purports to deal with the country’s burgeoning deficit. In the weeks leading to the selection of his vice-presidential nominee, many conservative intellectuals wrote admiringly about Ryan in order to encourage, if not pressure Romney to choose him for the post. Their efforts played an important part in Ryan's getting the nod from Romney.
Although Romney won the Republican nomination, Tea Party activists and many conservative Republicans tend to be lukewarm about his candidacy. Those activists have been skeptical of Romney’s conservative bona fides for two major reasons. First, while he was running against then-senator Ted Kennedy, he was pro-choice and a gay-rights supporter. As Romney famously put it, “I’ll be better than Ted for gay rights.” More importantly, he is the “grandfather” of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare and the originator of the individual mandate. Although the central plank (the individual mandate) of the ACA came out of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Republicans have opposed the legislation vociferously. Because of this record, conservative activists have been suspicious of Romney’s commitment to their orthodoxies.
Ryan has been embraced by conservatives as one of their own. By choosing him, Romney sought not only to reassure but also to excite the conservative base. Ryan is best known for his controversial budget plan, which aims to “voucherize” Medicare, block-grant Medicaid and slash other programs that provide a safety net to working class Americans and the poor while lavishing tax cuts on the one-percent. Even the Catholic Church has strongly criticized the plan for its impact on the poor. Romney must be acutely aware of the opposition against the plan among the public at large despite its popularity amongst the conservative base. To paraphrase Politico, Romney, then, set out to hug the man, but not his proposed ideas.
The selection of Ryan, however, has inevitably shined the spotlight on his budget. There have been numerous media reports about the impact that the budget would have on the poor and more importantly on the elderly. As a group, older Americans have been strong backers of Romney. But they are vehemently opposed to turning Medicare into a voucher system. The Obama team, then, has been hammering Romney on the issue. The Romney team tries to muddle the matter by accusing Obama of taking $716 billion from the program. But recent polls have shown that most people believe that Obama would protect Medicare instead of his opponent.
To contain the fallout, Romney has muzzled Ryan. He has barely uttered a word about his plan on the campaign trail. But his silence has not completely mitigated the damage. Nowhere was this more evident than when Ryan was booed by members of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) while talking about the debunked claims that Obama, not his plan would weaken Medicare. More importantly, since the selection of Ryan, Obama’s support among seniors has surged.
As he began to fade into the background, conservatives started to demand that Romney “let Ryan be Ryan.” They want him to play a more prominent role in the campaign. In fact, they want Ryan to take the fight to Obama by spelling out what the ticket would do to deal with the country’s problem. Despite the unpopularity of Ryan’s budget, conservatives have convinced themselves that a forceful presentation of the plan would sway public opinion. With less than 40 days left before the presidential election, there has been no sign yet that Romney would throw caution to the wind and campaign on those proposals. Unfortunately for Romney, Ryan has already become a political liability rather than an asset.