WASHINGTON — It is the recurring temptation of self-confident, insular elites to assume that the whole country loves what they love, hates what they hate and believes what they believe. "The American people are not going to elect a 70-year-old, right-wing, ex-movie actor to be president," explained Jimmy Carter's aide Hamilton Jordan in 1980. This view was universally shared, except by voters in 44 states.
In early 2010, Paul Ryan's "A Roadmap for America's Future" was seen as a boon to Democratic midterm prospects. Focus groups found elements of the plan unpopular. Republicans who endorsed it were subject to attack ads. Democratic campaign chairman Chris Van Hollen described the "Roadmap" as a political "gift" — before Republicans achieved the largest partisan shift in the House since 1948.
Many in politics and the media are now convinced that the selection of Paul Ryan will chain Mitt Romney to an unpopular House budget, shift attention away from an anemic economy, alienate independents and undermine Republican prospects in Florida.
It is possible they are right. Over the last few years, Republicans themselves have often been divided on the benefits of Ryan's relentless budgetary specificity. Nearly all believe a national debate on entitlements is inevitable. At least some believe it is politically premature, at least on the presidential level.
Thanks to the bold, controversial Mitt Romney, we are about to find out. (If nothing else, the Ryan nomination has led to an outbreak of previously improbable adjectives.) The Romney/Ryan case is not easy but the conclusion of the debate is not foregone. The Democratic ticket will go small — detailing how Ryanism will hurt this group and that. The Republican ticket will go large — arguing that budgetary indiscipline creates uncertainty that undermines current growth, while eventually leading to fiscal crisis and economic catastrophe. This is a more complex argument than, "Economy, bad." It is also more likely to yield a governing mandate, which seems to be Romney's admirable, unexpected goal.
In the fight Romney has picked, Ryan is an advantage. He is the best policy thinker and best communicator among the rising generation of conservative reformers. He combines a sober realism about a teetering, unsustainable entitlement system with a bubbly, Jack Kemp-like belief in the promise of unleashed enterprise. (We both worked for Kemp at the same time in the 1990s.) Unlike a recent Republican vice presidential nominee, you can't put him on the spot. He is informed, levelheaded and persuasive. And he is already Barack Obama's most persistent, effective economic critic.
The charge of radicalism will not survive exposure to Ryan himself. The notion that he is merely a "base pick" is lazy. This base pick has consistently won in a congressional district that was carried by Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Obama. This base pick voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the auto bailout and supported George W. Bush's attempt at comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, Ryan is a moderate conservative, of unusual creativity, likability and influence, accustomed to addressing non-Republicans.
But no election is a referendum on a vice president, which explains why few historians refer to the tenure of Teddy Roosevelt as the "Charles Fairbanks era." Romney has now embraced an economic argument that cannot be delegated — and there are serious questions about his ability to carry it. But Romney is not without some advantages.
In his single-minded pursuit of health reform, Obama sacrificed many things, including his purity on entitlement cuts. More than $700 billion in Medicare savings was devoted not to shoring up Medicare but to funding Obamacare. Republican proposals for Medicare reforms, in contrast, exempt seniors 55 and older from changes. So only one candidate has pursued Medicare cuts that undermine services to current seniors — and it is not Romney. Sen. Marco Rubio, by the way, won election in Florida after endorsing Ryan's "Roadmap," with a variant of this message: Protect current seniors without bankrupting their grandchildren.
And Romney happens to have economic reality on his side. The long-term entitlement crisis is seeping into the short term. Social Security slipped into the red last year. Medicare follows suit in roughly a decade. And Europe is demonstrating that creditors' patience with political and fiscal dysfunction is not infinite.
Americans say they are concerned about the most predictable economic crisis in our history. Romney — who has so often stroked the voters in the past — has suddenly called their bluff. It is both the assumption of a risk and the emergence of a leader.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.