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Assumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's bold selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate has sharpened the lines in the coming election. This is now, most certainly, a choice "about the overall direction and future of the country." Those are the words used by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial last week urging Mr. Romney to select Rep. Ryan, a seven-term congressman from Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Mr. Romney cannot credibly select the elected official most associated with the new movement in the Republican Party - the tea-party inspired, no-tax-increase-ever, anti-regulation, safety-net-slashing crusade - and then seek distance from his teammate's ideas.
"I have my budget plan and that's the budget plan we're going to run on," Mr. Romney told an interviewer Sunday, the day after picking Rep. Ryan, his innate cautiousness seeming to resurface.
No, Mr. Romney, in selecting Rep. Ryan you have made this, as the Wall Street Journal also urged, "a big election over big issues."
But while the conservative Journal casts the election as a "generational choice about the role of government and whether America will once again become a growth economy or sink into interest-group dominated decline," the reverse side of that coin is that Rep. Ryan is asking a new generation to turn its back on long-held American ideals.
In a commentary published by the magazine "Commonweal," author Jeff Madrick, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the Schwartz Center for Economic Analysis, called the election perhaps the most important since 1932. Written before the Ryan selection, it rings more true now.
"A Romney win would be a turn toward less government and an even more minimal safety net - a radical attempt to return us to a pre-New Deal America, one run according to the crueler and more primitive forms of individualism," wrote Mr. Madrick.
Mr. Ryan calls for fundamental changes in Medicare, burdening future seniors with the responsibility to pick a plan using fixed government payments - vouchers - with caps that would likely grow slower than medical costs. He would administer the Medicaid health care and food stamp programs for the needy as limited state block grants, reducing help for millions.
Mr. Ryan has called for slashing individual tax rates for individuals and corporations, another windfall for the wealthy, while promising to close loopholes, but failing to offer specifics. Meanwhile, a Romney-Ryan presidency would seek to repeal regulations to curb Wall Street abuses passed after the 2008 market-driven collapse. They trust unfettered banks and large investors to now act responsibly.
President Obama needs to provide his own big solutions. The president's decision to ignore the recommendations of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the Simpson-Bowles commission), rather than adopt and adapt its recommendations to curb long-term deficit growth, was a major strategic mistake.
Having failed to back the commission's concepts, the president needs to offer realistic alternatives to lowering deficit growth, keeping Medicare viable long term, and to make the case that the sudden austerity called for by Republicans will cost jobs, not create them. A primary focus must be reviving the housing market, a key to recovery. The president cannot be afraid to point out that the average federal tax rates for American households have reached an historical low, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, and that higher taxes must be part of the solution to meet national needs while getting deficits under control.
It will not be enough to claim the Republican ticket's big ideas are the wrong ideas; the Obama team needs big ideas of its own.