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Paul Ryan, Up Close

I met Paul Ryan for the first time today at a lunch meeting. I would have said that my opinion of Ryan couldn’t get much higher, but it did. He was even more impressive in person than I expected: funny and passionate as well as superbly knowledgeable about fiscal issues. Ryan is a first-principles conservative, who draws a straight line from the Founding and the Declaration of Independence to our current debt/spending crisis.

I would summarize Ryan’s main themes as follows:

1) The United States has a brief time remaining when we can solve our budgetary crisis without drastic measures. Soon, our debt to GDP ratio will inhibit economic growth, the sheer magnitude of the debt will overwhelm efforts to get it under control, and rising interest rates will crush all other budgetary considerations. For now, we have an opportunity to solve the fiscal crisis without, for example, having to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits to existing seniors. This is what the House Republican budget seeks to do. But that window is rapidly closing.

2) Ever-increasing numbers of Americans are becoming dependent on the federal government. Currently around 40% are either “dependent” or “reliant” on federal checks, and 70% of the population takes more out of the federal government in benefits than it pays in taxes. The Democrats seek to accelerate these trends in order to perpetuate their own power (my paraphrase). But those numbers are somewhat misleading, as many are now dependent on government as a result of the current recession. The United States remains, for the time being, a center-right country, and a clear majority continues to favor freedom and opportunity over cradle to grave government control.

3) For the above reasons, the 2012 election is a pivotal contest in which Americans will likely choose one of two destinies: a return to the commitment to freedom and opportunity that is embodied in the Constitution and in American history, or a decisive turn toward European-style social democracy.

4) It is important for this election to be one in which the choice facing the voters is framed starkly so that, if the Republicans win, they will have a mandate to do what is necessary to rescue America from financial collapse and return to the opportunity society that was envisioned by the Founders.

Ryan answered a number of questions from the audience. It is no surprise that his knowledge of the facts and data as they relate to budget policy is encyclopedic. But Ryan is not merely a wonk; he is also skillful at discussing budget issues in a way that is both understandable and compelling. We have all seen him do this on video and television; I would say that in person, he is even more impressive.

Ryan was asked about Mitt Romney and the vice-presidency. He spoke highly of Romney, who he says has the high character that he associates with World War II veterans he has known, and a businessman’s understanding of economics. He brushed off, naturally, any talk about the vice-presidency. It is entertaining to contemplate a matchup between Ryan and Joe Biden, which would be even more one-sided than the 2004 “debate” between Dick Cheney and John Edwards. For that matter, no one would be better able to expose the fatuous demagoguery of Barack Obama than Paul Ryan. For better or worse, that is a spectacle to which we will not be treated.

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