Watching Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan on talk shows over the weekend left me feeling empty.
It took me back to the Republican convention, when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made my heart soar. Here at last was someone talking straight, ready to level with the American people, to tell them - especially our seniors- about the tough road ahead and the tough choices we face, about the urgency of our fiscal problems and how we can move with urgency to make those tough choices.
Christie said, "It's been easy for our leaders to say not us, and not now, in taking on the tough issues." He said we had to lead as his mother insisted he live, "not by avoiding truths, especially the hard ones, but by facing up to them and being the better for it."
He said, "We believe in telling seniors the truth about our overburdened entitlements." And he said, "Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the torrent of debt that is compromising our future and burying our economy."
After the weekend, I decided I had to look to Christie, the avatar of speaking the truth and telling Americans the hard facts. So here are some questions for Gov. Christie; I would be happy for answers from any Republican in Congress if he does not reply:
- Romney and Ryan have said that balancing the budget and ending that torrent of debt requires a frontal assault on government spending - and especially those entitlements. That starts with the Medicare reform outlined by Ryan and endorsed by Romney. But that reform doesn't start for 10 years - and in the meantime, Romney and Ryan have pledged not to touch one dime of the Medicare or Social Security benefits going to current seniors. Please explain how you will urgently tackle our debt problem and our overburdened entitlements by not touching a dime of them for 10 years.
- Romney has put back into his budget the $716 billion in Medicare cuts that were in the Ryan budget - the same $716 billion for which he and you rip Obama for including as part of the revenue to pay for the 2010 health law. The Ryan budget relied on that $716 billion to reduce debt, but even with that included, the plan does not balance the federal budget until the mid-2030s. Without including the $716 billion, when would the Ryan-Romney budget reach balance?
- Medicare actuaries say the aforementioned $716 billion taken out of Medicare by Obama would extend Medicare solvency by eight years. Taking it out, as Romney would, means the Medicare Trust Fund would be insolvent by 2016. How would Romney make Medicare solvent in 2016 while still meeting his promise not to touch the benefits of current Medicare recipients? Would he increase payroll taxes? If so, when will he give that hard truth to Grover Norquist and all of those who have taken the no-taxes pledge?
- Repeal of the 2010 health care law would restore the "doughnut hole" for Medicare prescription drugs and require Medicare recipients to pay out of pocket for preventive care, among other things. How would a President Romney pay for the elimination of the doughnut hole and free access to preventive care for seniors, which would be required to meet his pledge to keep current Medicare recipients whole? Would he increase payroll taxes? (See question above.)
- The ubiquitous $716 billion in Medicare cuts comes largely from providers, such as hospitals. Providers had agreed to those cuts in return for the expanded market coming from the insurance mandate. Removing the $716 billion would mean they would have higher fees - and because the fee costs are shared between the Medicare program and its patients, their out-of-pocket expenses would rise. How would a President Romney pay to take those seniors' expenses back to where he had promised they would be?
- The Ryan-Romney budget would cut Medicaid by 30 percent and turn it into a block grant to the states. The single-largest component of Medicaid is nursing home care. To bring it to the state level, how would Gov. Christie take a 30 percent hit in Medicaid money and still provide care to the 45,000 or so New Jerseyites now in these facilities (the vast majority of whom rely on Medicaid)? How would he explain to the infirm elderly and their families the hard truths about the cutbacks in attendants, beds, amenities and other areas that would otherwise follow?
- Ryan, in his convention speech, spoke movingly when he said, "The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves." The 30 percent cut in Medicaid, along with the repeal of the health care overhaul, would eliminate coverage for about 30 million Americans, including millions of poor elderly. How would you make sure you can meet the expectations Ryan called for?
- The Ryan-Romney budget that would leave Social Security and Medicare alone for 10 years, increase defense to a minimum of 4 percent of the gross domestic product, make the Bush tax cuts permanent and reduce government spending to 20 percent of GDP would require 40 percent cuts in all of the rest of domestic government over four years. That means homeland security, the FBI, food safety, cancer research, air traffic control, education and highways, among many other programs. How would you accomplish all of this without devastating infrastructure or endangering Americans' safety?
Gov. Christie, let me address you directly: I know these are tough questions. But you are a tough guy - and you more than anyone else at the convention in Tampa, Fla., made clear that your stock in trade is giving those tough, hard truths to people in New Jersey and elsewhere. I eagerly await your response.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.