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opinion | Joshua Green

The benefits of a nasty presidential campaign

As the news began to spread on Satuday morning that Mitt Romney had selected Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan to be his running mate, the media reaction was nearly unanimous: The conservative budget wonk would “elevate the debate” and “make the election about big issues,” not small things like tax returns and offshore bank accounts. That prediction soon looked ridiculous. By Tuesday, President Obama was talking about Romney’s poor, mistreated mutt and Romney was accusing the president of fomenting “anger and hate.” So much for elevated.

Still, the choice of Ryan guarantees the election will be about bigger things than it otherwise would have been, even if the Romney campaign has begun to shrink from some of what that implies. It won’t happen before November, but Ryan’s presence on the ticket could eventually usher in a politics that isn’t limited to trivialities and dysfunction and clears the way for progress on major challenges like tax and entitlement reform. The attacks that everyone bemoans will play an important role in bringing this change about. In fact, change might not come without them.

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And it wouldn’t come as easily if Romney had selected someone else. During his seven terms in Congress, Ryan has written detailed budgets that privatize Social Security, transform Medicare into a voucher system, eliminate Medicaid as a federal program, and wipe out the capital gains tax entirely. Conservative ideologues are ecstatic about the Ryan choice because Ryan has produced the clearest expression of what they want government to look like and serves as its most effective spokesman and advocate. When he first presented his ideas as the “Roadmap for America’s Future” in 2008, he attracted only eight co-sponsors. But a revamped version passed the House last year and then again this year. Ryan has become the GOP’s intellectual leader.

In introducing his new partner, Romney proudly invoked Ryan’s “vision for the country” and looked palpably relieved that his own Bain career and tax status might finally take a back seat. They have — but only because Ryan’s vision is suddenly driving events.

Since Saturday, the campaign has become an object lesson in the political perils of proposing a frontal assault on the welfare state. Romney’s team has tried to blunt its vulnerability by seizing on Obama’s own cuts to Medicare and trying to disavow some of Ryan’s proposals. But nothing short of mass amnesia will erase the fact that Ryan’s latest budget preserved these same cuts and Romney pronounced that budget “marvelous,” pledging to sign it if given the chance.

That’s why Democrats are just as excited about the Ryan pick as conservatives. They’re so confident voters will reject his vision that they were laboring to associate Romney with it long before the announcement. Meanwhile, Democrats in races all the way down the ticket are now using Ryan to attack their Republican opponents.

This has caused agita among a certain class of Washington commentator. Writing in The New Republic, William Galston of the Brookings Institution complained that Democratic attacks were poisoning any chance of future compromise on the big reforms that must be undertaken soon after the election. But this outlook rests on an outmoded, civics-textbook view of Washington policy debates as high-minded affairs that end up settling on points of common agreement. That view no longer comports with how Washington really works.

The fact is that pummeling the opposing party into chastened submission has become the only way to settle significant matters of policy.

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Consider a couple of the points of agreement in the last presidential campaign. Both the Obama-Biden and the McCain-Palin tickets favored an energy policy limiting carbon emissions and a stimulus package to help lift the economy. After the election, bipartisan harmony was nowhere to be found.

Now consider the big, ugly fight last winter over whether to extend the payroll tax cut. Republicans opposed it and got routed; the cuts were extended, and then extended a second time (without incident).

It may not be pretty, but the fact is that pummeling the opposing party into chastened submission has become the only way to settle significant policy disagreements. Romney’s choice of Ryan will nationalize the election around the most significant ones of all — not just taxes and entitlement reform, but whole the nature of the relationship between government and its citizens. The campaign was always going to be brutal and nasty. Now it will be brutal, nasty, and meaningful.

Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.
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