Many Canadian commenters are drawing comparisons between Republican heartthrob Paul Ryan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Some parallels do exist. Both are men of strong convictions; both gained prominence at relatively young ages.
More important than the similarities, however, are the differences: differences that have made one man a head of government -- and that are complicating the other man's run for the vice presidency. If not too late, here are three things that Paul Ryan could beneficially learn from Stephen Harper.
1) One reform at a time
Paul Ryan has achieved fame with his grand designs for big immediate cuts to social spending; joined to restructuring of the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs; bolted to a big cut in the top federal income tax rate to 28 per cent.The grand design is all to be enacted at once, in one big bang.
By contrast, there is no "Harper plan." Harper has in mind a general direction in which he'd like to move: lower taxes, limited government, balanced budgets. But every step is incremental. Only at the end of a period of years does it become apparent how far he has moved.
Each Harper reform has been offered as an independent proposal, to pass or fail on its merits. If any has to be abandoned, well then, move on to the next.
Ryan's method of interlocking everything together creates a tremendous opportunity for his political opponents. They can seize upon some spending reform and crow, "The only reason that you are cutting this program is to fund a huge tax cut for the very rich" -- because in fact all the parts have to be adopted together for the grand design to work.
Nobody can credibly hurl such a charge at Harper. There's a spending cut, to be debated on its merits. Then, later, there's a tax reform, also to be debated on its merits. Different measures. Different debates.
2) Adapt to circumstances
Paul Ryan has been concerned with government spending, debt, and tax rates throughout his political career. His consistency is impressive. Since 2008, however, the world has changed radically. Ryan's policy response has not changed with it. His budget plan disregards the Eurozone crisis. It has little to say about high unemployment in the U.S. It focuses in 2012 on exactly the same set of fiscal problems the U.S. faced in 2006.
Stephen Harper, first elected in 2006, has adapted his ideas to new facts. He deployed a fiscal stimulus program to cushion the global economic shock -- but carefully ensured that the stimulus would fade out as Canada recovered. Canada's stimulus, unlike President Obama's, was not a fig leaf for some pre-existing ideological agenda. Again unlike President Obama's, Canada's stimulus did not open the way to permanently higher federal spending. The Canadian stimulus did the job. Only when Canadian economic output returned to pre-crisis levels did the fiscal tightening begin.
3) Don't talk so much
According to legend, the Harper campaign war rooms are decorated with a big placard asking: "Why are you saying this?" The idea is to discourage what frustrated political communicators call "musing." Musing occurs when a politician begins talking about issues other than those immediately at hand.
"You say you want stricter standards for chicken coops. Tell me -- can you ever envision granting chickens full human rights protections under the Charter?" And there will always be some unwary soul who will answer the question.
Paul Ryan has described a vision of government extending into the 2040s. The one thing for sure is that whatever we'll be talking about in the 2040s, it won't be anything we imagine today. Leave the future alone to take care of itself. Don't answer questions about your "ultimate" goals. You're not going to achieve those "ultimate" goals. Nobody in politics ever does. Pretending that you can or will only alarms people, wholly unnecessarily, and makes it that much more difficult to achieve any of your goals, even the most modest.
"You don't have to explain what you never said," is a line often attributed to President Calvin Coolidge. If he didn't say it, he should have. But even better than saying it, is heeding it.
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