WASHINGTON — The campaign that had studiously avoided specific policy proposals while relentlessly attacking President Obama over the economy as tepid jobs reports piled up month after month has suddenly shifted course.
By picking Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan to join the ticket, Mitt Romney is embracing a strategy focused on some very detailed, and in some quarters, highly controversial solutions to the nation’s enormous fiscal problems. Among them, a politically risky plan championed by Ryan to overhaul Medicare.
It is a move that at once injects a stronger sense of ideological consistency into the ticket while energizing party conservatives, who have increasingly called for Romney to deliver a more forceful, detailed, and rigorous message.
As budget committee chairman in the Republican-controlled House, Ryan gained fame as he proposed to dramatically shrink the size of government. His plan would cut taxes by more than $4 trillion over 10 years, paying for it in part by slashing projected federal spending by $5.8 trillion.
“I think the Ryan pick signals that the calculus has changed within the Romney camp, and they need something above and beyond a simple referendum on Obama to get this done,’’ said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “This shows something about Romney that people may not have seen before.’’
Driving home the point: Romney’s campaign pumped out a press release after the two candidates appeared together citing press reports about “a big, exciting campaign of ideas.’’
Exciting ideas have not, to this point, been central to Romney’s campaign. Broad strokes, and scant detail, have. His main talking point had been that he is a businessman who understands free enterprise and knows how to put America back to work. Risk aversion was a hallmark of this approach, as he shrugged off entreaties to sharpen the policy contrasts with the White House.
But the shift in emphasis with the pick of Ryan now potentially exposes Romney to exactly the kind of scrutiny, and criticism, that his strategy of keeping out of the policy weeds was designed to avoid.
The Wisconsin lawmaker has been a lightning rod for criticism over his proposals for reining in entitlement spending, particularly on Medicare. Romney, even as he doesn’t endorse Ryan’s plan in all its details, will only become more associated with it, now that he has adopted its author as his running mate. Democrats can be counted on to pound that point hard.
“The Ryan budget is chock full of scary proposals, and they’ve just handed the president a cornucopia of treats to select from to hit Romney with,’’ said David DiMartino, a Democratic consultant in Washington.
Ryan’s approach to Medicare spending would transform the current open-ended benefit into a voucher program. The idea is to let seniors shop for their own care under a capped benefit, making them more cost-sensitive consumers and limiting the government’s financial exposure. It would replace the fee-for-service system in place now that pays doctors for whatever care they deliver, which most specialists say has contributed mightily to the rising costs of Medicare, and health care generally.
The Ryan plan also would gradually raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, starting in 2022. Current retirees would not be affected, but people who are 55 or younger now would see the changes. Seniors would also be permitted to stick with the old system if they prefer.
Proposing such sweeping change is potentially politically explosive — especially in the key swing state of Florida, home to many seniors. Hours after the vice president announcement, the Obama campaign immediately renewed attacks on Ryan, saying his proposals would “end Medicare as we know it.’’
Ryan has not detailed what other programs he would cut as part of his $5.8 billion in reductions, although he has said defense spending should be protected. On taxes, he has set targets for lower rates but stopped short of eliminating mortgage interest deductions and other benefits like charitable deductions, which many specialists say would probably be required to pay for the lower tax rates.
He has also been resistant to compromise. A member of the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction commission that drafted a series of new taxes and spending cuts to balance future budgets, he was one of seven panelists, from both parties, who voted against the final report.
“He has not been a proponent of the kind of compromise between the parties that it is probably going to take to get a plan passed. He tries to do it all on the spending side,’’ said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for reduced debt and entitlement reforms.
“You can do it on paper, if you are just trying to pass something through the Republican House, but actually trying to get things through the Senate, or presenting them to the American people during the election campaign, you are going to get a lot more friction.’’
The other risk of adding Ryan to the ticket is that Democrats will paint him as a Washington insider, part of the endlessly squabbling Capitol Hill crowd that has pushed the public’s approval rating for Congress to record lows. Last week, just 16 percent of Americans approved of the way Congress handles its job, according to a Gallup Poll.
That 16 percent level is just slightly better than the 13 percent mark hit in August 2011, when House Republicans bore the brunt of criticism for driving the country to the brink of a debt default when they refused for weeks to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
The crisis was defused when Congress negotiated a deal for automatic budget cuts, which Ryan largely supported.
Speaking before the battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday, Romney sought to elevate the new junior partner on the GOP ticket above the Washington fray.
“In a city that is far too often characterized by pettiness and personal attacks, Paul Ryan is a shining exception,’’ Romney said. “He does not demonize his opponents.’’
Romney also sought to reassure voters that a Romney-Ryan team would not threaten Medicare, while denouncing the 10-year spending reductions in the program scheduled under Obama’s health care plan. Capping Medicare and using vouchers in order to save the program has picked up some bipartisan support since Ryan announced his plan.
Obama, however, has opposed any move toward vouchers. Digging more deeply into these differences should provoke a healthy debate, said Republican Representative Charles Bass of New Hampshire, and is a welcome change from the current tone of the campaign.
“Paul Ryan’s selection will make this election campaign more substantive,’’ Bass said. “Now one calls the other an idiot, and the other calls the other a jerk. That’s not how a presidential selection should be.’’
But others are not sure the dialogue will be elevated.
“I’d like to say it will lead to a good substantive debate over budget and taxes, but I’m not sure it will,’’ said Bixby, of the Concord Coalition. “There will be a lot of vitriol and a lot of charges of whose plan is going to kill more people, and whose plan is going to drive the nation over the edge.’’