Dynamist Blog

"Get the Best Experts in a Room" and What Do They Say? Fix Medicare

In my latest Bloomberg View column, I argue that the Republicans ought to emulate Ross Perot's 1992 campaign infomercials:

The traditional roles of a U.S. presidential running mate are ticket balancer and attack dog. With their choices of Al Gore and Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush added another: the brainy policy partner with big-picture views.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is following that model in picking Paul Ryan. Ryan fires up the party's base, but he's also a policy wonk who could actually help a victorious candidate govern.

As a candidate, the telegenic, articulate Ryan could play another much-needed role. He could be a great communicator, educating the public about policy challenges and Republican plans to address them.

Here I'm thinking not of Ronald Reagan but of a quirkier candidate. Two decades ago, Ross Perot riveted the public with his half-hour prime-time lectures on the dangers of the budget deficit. People still remember his hand-held charts.

The Perot commercials treated the voters as intelligent citizens hungry for knowledge and willing to sit still long enough to absorb it. Perot didn't offer especially cogent ideas for dealing with the deficit -- his main prescription was to get the "best experts" in the room and have them come up with a plan -- but he effectively focused attention on the issues, particularly the federal budget. His commercials capped a campaign year in which voters, anxious about recession and restructuring, were unusually engaged with economic policy. (Clinton's economic plan -- summarized in the manifesto "Putting People First" -- became, like Perot's, a best- seller.)

We're in another anxious period, and voters are again primed to consider serious policy talk. To play up its team's strengths as numbers guys, countering the self-congratulatory idea of Democrats as the party of intellect, the Romney campaign could make a gutsy move. It could deploy Ryan to talk to the public at length about the looming fiscal crisis, producing a series of long-form, Perot-style videos. Nowadays the Republicans wouldn't even need to spend money for prime-time television (although that would certainly get attention). They could rely on YouTube.

Read the rest here.

In the current environment, Perot's technocratic faith in "the best experts" looks especially naive. Even when they agree on the problem, smart policy wonks can still disagree about what to do, because they have fundamentally different assumptions about the proper role of government or different ideas of what systemic effects are likely to result from a given reform. You need only contrast Paul Ryan's general take to what Peter Orszag, formerly Obama's OMB director and now (among other things) my colleague as a Bloomberg View columnist, wrote in response to the Ryan pick.

It's worth noting, however, that despite their significant differences the two do agree on one thing that a lot of voters don't want to hear: exploding Medicare spending is the biggest problem facing the federal fisc. Medicare's open-ended entitlement to whatever health care you want has to be changed somehow. They just disagree on what to do about it.

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