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Ryan's VP Nod: What's It Mean for Education?

On Saturday, Mitt Romney announced Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, has been perhaps the leading voice among House Republicans pushing for a smaller, more disciplined federal government. What's Romney's choice mean for education?

First, let's keep in mind that the importance of VP picks is always overrated. That said, the Ryan selection is important because of what it signals about Romney and the kind of race we're likely to see this fall. Ryan was the most ideologically compelling running mate that Romney could have selected. In choosing Ryan, Romney passed on safer picks like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Ohio senator Rob Portman, in favor of an unapologetic champion of overhauling entitlements and downsizing the federal government.

Ryan's budget has been the litmus test for serious conservatives, and Romney has already endorsed it. The nomination means that Ryan's budget plan will now, for all practical purposes (and despite any fancy footwork from the Romney camp), be treated as the Romney-Ryan plan. Ryan's 2012 budget proposed spending $5.3 trillion less than Obama over the ensuing decade and called for dramatic, essential cuts to entitlements. On "education, training, employment, and social services," the Ryan budget would spend 33% less in that span. (For what it's worth, I think highly of Ryan and endorse the broad contours of his proposal. But go ahead and check out his Roadmap for America's Future for yourself.)

In conservative circles, Romney has been slammed for failing to offer an agenda or sketch a principled, alternative vision. Just last week, influential columnist Charles Krauthammer observed, "There are two ways to run against Barack Obama: stewardship or ideology. You can run against his record or you can run against his ideas." He lamented the fact that Romney has stuck to the stewardship argument, arguing that, "The ideological case...is not just appealing to a center-right country with twice as many conservatives as liberals, it is also explanatory. It underpins the stewardship argument. Obama's ideology -- and the program that followed -- explains the failure of these four years."

Selecting Ryan signals that the Romney campaign, by choice or by necessity, is going to wind up talking ideology. It means we're going to be hearing more concrete talk about cutting the deficit and what to do about entitlements and federal programs. And Obama's team is going to seize the opportunity to turn the election from a referendum on a lackluster economy into a sharp choice of economic visions. Obama's campaign and liberal super PACs are going to try to make Ryan's budget proposals a liability for Romney. In the weeks and months ahead, they'll focus less on Bain and more on accusing Romney of wanting to slash popular entitlements and programs. Meanwhile, the Romney camp will use Ryan to energize the GOP base and to try to convince independents that a President Romney would offer real, positive change and be more than the "not-Obama." The result is likely to be a campaign that feels a little more like a contest of competing visions and less a simple, mud-spattered referendum on the past four years. This is all to the good.

Now, if you followed the initial Obama response to Ryan's announcement, you noticed that education programs were prominently mentioned as examples of what gets cut in the Ryan budget. On Saturday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina charged that Ryan "proposed an additional $250,000 tax cut for millionaires, and deep cuts in education from Head Start to college aid." The flurry of education examples was no coincidence. Education is where Obama can most cleanly argue that he's for smart "investments" and not just more borrowing and spending. Remember, in 2008, Obama routinely cited education, clean energy, and health care to illustrate his focus on investments. Today, Solyndra is the face of clean energy and health care reform polls poorly with swing voters. When it comes to education, though, the President can point to bipartisan plaudits for Race to the Top and his stance on charter schooling. This means that--even though this election is going to be about the economy, and even though education isn't a top five issue--there's an excellent chance that education is now going to figure more prominently than we might have expected in Obama's fall campaign.

All of this means that the election may wind up proving surprisingly significant for education, despite its low profile in the contest. If Obama wins, he'll be positioned to argue that voters have rejected a vision of budget-balancing that's driven by aggressive cuts to government programs. He'll likely have won in part because he pointed to education as an example of good federal investment. And he'll be in a stronger position to make the case for raising new revenues. Given the staggering debt challenges, it's still unlikely that this would yield more than minimal growth in federal edu-spending over the next four years; but it would mean significant cuts are off the table, and strengthen education's position in any grand budget deal.

On the other hand, if Romney wins after three months of having Ryan as his wingman, he'll have much more cause to argue that voters have endorsed the kinds of dramatic budget-cutting and reforms envisioned in the Ryan budget. This is doubly true if a Romney victory comes, as seems likely, with unified GOP control of Capitol Hill. In such a scenario, domestic spending (and education) would be in line for unprecedented cuts, and the potential sequestration trims that have raised so many cries in edu-circles might wind up looking pretty good in comparison.

We'll see how this plays out. But the Ryan selection is a serious choice, with serious implications for 2013 and beyond.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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