Romney-Ryan Ticket Brings Lame Duck Debate Forward

Nancy Cook

The tax and spending debates that Beltway insiders predicted would not begin in earnest until after the election have suddenly been thrust onto the national stage, thanks to Rep. Paul Ryan’s new spot on the Republican presidential ticket.

Since Mitt Romney announced his pick of Ryan as running mate on Saturday, the presidential race has already begun to shift from rhetorical, broad-brush attacks on ill-defined economic policy positions toward a more serious, substantive debate over spending and taxes – indeed the very role of government in American life.

(RELATED: The Ryan Budget Plan: By the Numbers)

And this means a debate – under a national spotlight – of the issues that Washington once thought would be taken care of behind closed doors in the seven weeks between the election and the end of the year. Trillions of dollars in expiring tax provisions and spending will be up for negotiation during that lame-duck session of Congress on everything from the scope of tax cuts for the wealthy to deficit reduction and the future of social spending programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.

The addition of House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan to the Republican ticket assures those issues will be litigated on the campaign trail and in nationally televised debates. Ryan, a conservative who has authored now two budgets criticized by Democrats as radical and extreme due to the sharp cuts they make to entitlement programs, will proudly hold up his policy positions as proof that a Romney-Ryan administration would put America’s fiscal house in order. President Obama and Vice President Biden will warn voters that the Republican vision will wreck America’s safety net and leave the country’s most vulnerable without the support they need.

Indeed, they’ve already begun.

(ANALYSIS: Why Ryan Could Make a Romney Victory Harder)

“More than any other election, this is a choice about two different visions for the country, for two different directions of where America should go,” President Obama said at a Chicago fundraiser on Sunday.

The direction voters pick, he said, will “make a difference not just in your life, but in the lives of your children and in the lives of your grandchildren.”

Fighting these battles during the general election season will give the winning party in November greater cause to claim a mandate. It might also generate a voter class more educated on the wonky issues of federal budgeting, deficit reduction, taxes, and the cost of entitlements. And that focus will put pressure on lawmakers to accomplish something during the lame duck, even if it’s only planting the seeds for a later deficit-reduction plan or a tax overhaul.

Rep. Paul Ryan acknowledged as much Sunday night on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

“That’s why we think we need to have an election, to give the country a choice to put our country back on the right track. And then we need leadership to bring people together,” he said.

One of Ryan’s goals, according to his budget blueprint, is to shrink the size of the federal government by not providing funding for huge swathes of it. That’s not part of Obama’s plan, and that difference, among others, will drive the remainder of the campaign, forcing voters to decide the type of society they want and the kind of services they think government should be on the hook to provide.

Or, as the ranking member of the House Budget Committee Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said: Budgets “force choices. They’re a reflection of our priorities, and at every turn the Republican budget chooses windfall tax breaks for the very wealthy at the expense of everybody and everything else.”

That’s a not a sentiment that Romney or Ryan share. They say they’re eager to trim the budget to preserve some elements of the entitlement programs, while cutting taxes across-the-board to stimulate economic growth. That’s supply-side economics coupled with a plan for deep spending cuts. It’s also a clearer vision of reducing some portions of government spending than President Obama outlined.

The answers to these budget questions—previously relegated to the lame duck session--could redesign the way the country works and lives. Maybe it’s only fair then to debate these issues in public and on the campaign trail before the lame duck session so that they become the core question of the contest -- or, at least, the main reason behind voters’ decisions in November.