But on critical issues, Ryan ddid not shy from his and his party’s plans to fundamentally alter Medicare. And while Romney had played down the benefit of the ticket’s tax plan for the wealthy, his running mate fell back on Republican orthodoxy, defending “small businesses" and rich households from the rapacious reach of Obama.
“There aren’t enough rich people and small businesses to tax to pay for all their spending," Ryan said. “And so the next time you hear them say, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll get a few wealthy people to pay their fair share,’ watch out, middle class. The tax bill is coming to you."
Biden was equally steadfast, castigating Ryan for shifting a health care burden borne for decades by the government onto seniors, and playing the populist on taxes. “These guys haven’t been big on Medicare from the beginning," Biden said, firmly wearing the hat of a Democrat raised in the glow of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Who you believe?" he demanded in the shorthand of his hometown, Scranton, Pa. “Me, a guy who’s fought his whole life for this? Or somebody who had actually put in motion a plan that knowingly added $6,400 a year more to the cost of Medicare?"
It was inevitable that the vice presidential debate would put a national spotlight on the ideas Ryan enshrined in two separate budget plans passed the last two years by the House of Representatives. When he drafted them, Ryan foresaw the plans, the Roadmap for America in 2011 and the Path to Prosperity in 2012, as the ground on which Republicans would fight in the 2012 election.
“We need to say upfront, before the election, ‘Here is what we want to do,’" Ryan said in an interview in April before he was named to the ticket. “If we win the election, then we have the moral authority and the obligation to actually do it, not win on some vague platitudes, ‘We’re not Barack Obama,’ then say, ‘OK, here’s what we’re doing because we now have a mandate.’"
But since Romney named Ryan his running mate, that fight really has not materialized. Romney has not so much repudiated the Ryan budget as de-emphasized it, speaking vaguely of drafting his own plan if elected. He embraced Ryan’s prescriptions for Medicare in principle but not in detail. On taxes, Romney has adopted the direction of Ryan’s dictates — cuts to all tax rates, offset by unexplained loophole closures — but has not gone nearly as far.
But Biden went to Danville, Ky., prepared to fight those ideas out. With his youth and his forthrightness, Ryan evokes conservative political change in a way Romney doesn’t. Side by side with Biden, decades older, a generational clash leapt from the television screen. The budget plans did not come up in detail until the debate’s last moments, when Biden said: “The two budgets the congressman introduced have eviscerated all the things that the middle class cares about. It has knocked 19 — it will knock 19 million people off of Medicare. It will kick 200,000 children off of early education. It will eliminate the tax credit people have to be able to send their children to college. It cuts education by $450 billion. It does — it does virtually nothing, except continue to increase the tax cuts for the very wealthy."
But their prescriptions, especially on entitlements, were the center of the stormiest engagements throughout the night.
The dispute was especially sharp over Medicare. Ryan and Romney have proposed the most fundamental change to the program since Lyndon Johnson created it. The government’s defined benefit, fee-for-service insurance system would be reshaped into a defined contribution system, much like guaranteed pensions have shifted to 401(k) plans. Each beneficiary would receive a fixed amount of money — Biden called it a “voucher" — to purchase private insurance or buy into the existing government program.
Ryan’s belief is that competition would drive down the cost of health care, keeping the voucher’s value up-to-date. And Biden saw it as his job to stand and say no. “We will not be part of any voucher plan," he declared.