GUEST COLUMN: GOP base now owns the ticket

By William McKenzie

Guest Columnist

Hello base.

For the second straight presidential race, a center-right GOP nominee has responded to pleas from the party’s most conservative quarters and found his running mate there.

First came Sarah Palin. Now Paul Ryan. The conservative movement can’t rely any more on its old crutch about establishment Republicans ignoring them.

The tradition goes back at least to Gerald Ford defeating Ronald Reagan in the 1976 GOP primaries. Mitt Romney faced it himself, including during this year’s primaries and in recent appeals from The Wall Street Journal and others to energize the ticket with a choice like Ryan.

Of course, there’s a gap as broad as the Grand Canyon between Palin and Ryan. Palin was … well, exactly what was she, other than a set of cultural talking points that lacked a mute button?

Ryan comes from the part of the conservative movement that values ideas, especially ideas about the role of government and the best ways to sustain economic growth. He’s closer to the old Jack Kemp part of the movement, which spent its time preaching opportunity in the 1980s and 1990s, than he is to the modern Palin wing, which is stuck on arguing about social phenomena that arose out of the 1960s.

That distinction will make it harder for the Obama team to counter. Ryan offers some economic ideas rooted in credible scholarship.

In his chapter in the Bush Institute’s new “The 4% Solution,” which deals with growing the economy, economist Kevin Hassett writes about research by scholars Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff into how high debt loads in other nations have limited economic growth. The research, he writes, suggests a pessimistic outlook for growth here until our debt declines.

Ryan certainly places deficit reduction at the top of his agenda. He sees this strategy as a way to free up the economy, as he noted in his Saturday announcement speech.

This approach has been tried recently in Germany — and with some surprising leaders pushing it. Former Social Democratic Party Chancellor Gerhard Schroder reduced his country’s entitlements and lowered taxes as a way to juice up growth.

Neither are Ryan’s plans for Medicare a crazy concoction. He would let Americans 55 and under select between traditional Medicare and a private plan once they hit their senior years. This model mirrors the way Medicare recipients pick among various plans for prescription drugs.

Ryan’s thinking about overhauling Medicare is backed by Democrats such as former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin. She and ex-GOP Sen. Pete Domenici have offered a similar plan. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden is the co-sponsor of Ryan’s proposal to overhaul Medicare, and the pair’s well-reasoned defense of it makes it harder for the Obama campaign to run a partisan attack.

But while Ryan has credible ideas, he and his friends in the GOP base must explain why other parts of his budget plan, which the House recently passed, won’t harm vulnerable Americans. They can’t simply wave off the criticism as the establishment picking on them or ignoring them.

For example, the Ryan budget would give states a limited amount of money each year for their Medicaid recipients and tell them to provide the rest necessary for the working families and seniors in nursing homes who rely on this federal-state program.

States have not had a great record protecting Medicaid during tough times. Who’s to say that if Washington ends it as an entitlement, families with limited means won’t be harmed?

This is the type of issue on which GOP conservatives need to either adjust in response to criticism or come up with a plausible defense. Romney has done what they wanted him to do in selecting Ryan over more establishment Republicans, such as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. So the onus is now on that base to sell the team.

To put it another way, no more portraying themselves as victims of neglect. This ticket is theirs, and they need to own it.

Guest columnist William McKenzie writes for the Dallas Morning News.