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Is This the Ryan Teachable Moment?

Liberals are catching their breath after spending the first few days after Mitt Romney’s announcement of his vice presidential choice huffing and puffing about how happy they are to have Paul Ryan to attack this fall. But amid the complacent over-confidence, some are claiming to welcome the opportunity to have a debate about debt and the budget that Ryan’s presence on a national ticket will ensure. On the New York Times’ op-ed page, Joe Nocera attempts to broach the discussion in a serious manner while on the paper’s website, the less serious Roger Cohen also writes that such a debate would be good. Both seem to assume that most Americans share their prejudices about Ryan’s “radical” ideas about shrinking government but understand that the instinctive liberal refusal to contemplate a limit to federal spending is bad for the country’s long-term security.

This shows that despite their glib self-assurance that Americans can be Mediscared out of listening to Ryan’s ideas about reforming the government, some on the left are beginning to understand that Democrats must come up with an answer to the challenge posed by the intellectual leader of the GOP. Read Virginia Postrel’s suggestion yesterday in Bloomberg that the Republicans place Ryan front and center in a series of infomercials about the fiscal crisis this fall. The model would be the half hour prime time commercials that were broadcast by Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992 in which the eccentric and wealthy independent galvanized public attention on the budget with hand-held charts and lectures. While this idea may give heart attacks to some of Mitt Romney’s media consultants, it has some merit. For all of the arguments we’ve heard lately about the public’s willingness to listen to serious budget proposals like the one promoted by the GOP veep, the Republicans ought not to ignore the possibility that giving Ryan the opportunity to present his ideas is the last thing President Obama should want.

Liberals have been telling themselves the more Americans learn about what Ryan believes, the less likely they will be to vote for Romney. They believe, as Cohen says, that Ryan is the most radical Republican leader since Barry Goldwater and are sure that this guarantees a victory for the Democrats. But the genius of Ryan’s appeal is that he combines Ronald Reagan’s down home geniality with the sort of wonkish command of economics we have rarely seen in a national candidate. Rather than hoping Republicans will feature Ryan and his proposals, Democrats should fear the exposure he will get. The more people listen to Ryan’s notions about economic freedom and reining in the cycle of federal spending and taxing, the less likely they will be to accept the Democrats’ lame defense of the status quo.

There are good arguments against allowing Ryan to overshadow the top of the ticket. And, as Postrel admits, Ryan videos about the budget could provide Democrats with more material to attack. But as she rightly points out, the danger to the GOP isn’t that they would provide Obama’s campaign with ammunition, but that the attention span of the American people in 2012 is so much shorter than it was in 1992 that no one would listen to Ryan the way they did to Perot. But as she writes, no one expected the public to listen to Perot then either. The reason they did is there was a palpable hunger for new ideas and serious proposals about a problem most thinking people cared about. Ultimately, the voters rightly decided Perot wasn’t the sort of person who should be trusted with nuclear weapons, but his message resonated.

Republicans are capable of doing better than Perot’s primitive ads and they have a far better spokesman. It’s also possible to promote these ideas in a way in which the pecking order on the ticket is not reversed. Twenty years after Perot changed American politics, it may well be time for another lecture series on the budget and the size of the government that will ensure we have the serious debate about the fiscal crisis the country needs and deserves. Rather than a bonanza for the Democrats, the teachable moment for Paul Ryan’s ideas may have arrived.


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