I suppose that the selection of Paul Ryan as the Vice Presidential nominee on the Republican ticket makes my job a lot easier. I’ve written plenty about Ryan and his signature proposal, a budget roadmap that would end Medicare as we know it, block grant Medicaid, add private accounts to Social Security, take a hatchet in particular to pretty much all social insurance programs for the poor (in fact, he has moderated the most unpopular parts of his proposal over the years, the Medicare and Social Security changes, and made up for it with ramping up the cuts to anti-poverty programs), cut taxes on the rich and raise them on the middle class, and basically radically transform the 21st-century model of government in principles that can be best described as close to Ayn Rand, Ryan’s intellectual hero. House Republicans have voted for this budget twice, and Grover Norquist famously said at CPAC this year that all they need in the White House is someone with enough digits to hold a pen to sign it. Now, with a Romney win, they’ll have the architect of that budget in the White House looking over his shoulder. This cements the fact that the entire intellectual and political energy in the Republican Party comes out of the House Republican caucus, and nowhere else (it’s fitting that Ryan will still run for his House seat while running for VP). The Young Guns run the show, evidenced by one of their own making a major-party ticket.

And yet I take away two things. First of all, I completely agree that this selection means that jobs and the economy will actually get shunted to the side of the political debate for the next three months, an almost incredible scenario at a time of mass unemployment. Ryan’s position as author of the Republican budget means that the Obama campaign gets to tie the top of the ticket to that document, something they have wanted to do. They certainly don’t want to talk about the state of the economy over the past four years. Ryan and Romney made reference to poverty statistics in their VP announcement in Norfolk, Virginia today, and the poor economy. But Ryan’s association to the budget, and the way in which they see improving the economy in supply-side terms, through tax policy and constraining public spending and entitlements, means that the deficit and debt conversation will take on an outsized importance. The Obama campaign will attack on the budget, on Medicare, on Social Security, and with Ryan as a true believer, the Romney campaign will defend it. And the fact that we’re wasting human capital by maintaining a low aggregate demand, tolerating slow growth, keeping millions of Americans out of work and on the sidelines, will not get more than a passing inference. It’s really amazing.

This means that the election gets played on Obama’s turf, away from jobs and toward this long-term vision of government. But it assumes a very polarizing debate that doesn’t actually exist. The interesting part about this pick, and the talk that will follow it, is that it comes in a week where the President and his campaign made numerous efforts to position themselves as responsible cutters of safety net programs, from the paraphrase by the President himself that he is frustrated he didn’t get more credit for being willing to cut Social Security and Medicare, to the trial balloon floated about Erskine Bowles becoming the next Treasury Secretary in an Obama second term. The President has consistently talked of his preference for a grand bargain on the deficit, a “balanced plan” with a little more in taxes, and more cuts to various programs. It was only a year ago when he put raising the Medicare eligibility age and moving to a different calculation of the cost of living adjustment (that effectively cuts Social Security benefits and food stamps) on the table.

The depiction over the next couple months will be of a stark ideological choice between protecting the safety net and radically transforming it. That’s not quite right. I actually wrote about the actual fault line in American politics, relative to these fiscal issues, back in June of 2011, during the debt limit debate. It still holds up:

Maybe you think those leading Democrats aren’t being sincere about (protecting safety net programs). I actually am fine thinking that they are. Because this has now become the dividing line in American politics: one side wants to destroy the safety net, privatize everything, kill the unions, cut taxes for the rich and drown government in the bathtub. The other side doesn’t want to end Medicare. They don’t really want to expand it, they don’t even mind cutting it, hopefully to make it more efficient. They just don’t want to end it. Clearly you see how far to the right that dividing line has moved.

Democrats haven’t been totally firm on anything but the idea of not ending Medicare and not privatizing Social Security. Everything else is up for grabs. They don’t want to “slash” benefits to Social Security, but changes in the COLA by using chained CPI, which would result in a benefit cut, are on the table. They don’t want to end Medicare, but they’re open to cuts as long as they are attached to some minor revenue increases. They are concerned about senior health care, but they don’t mind making fairly severe changes to a program that substantially benefits seniors: Medicaid [...]

You can call it something antiseptic like a “blended rate” or “chained CPI,” but the proposals are to give state Medicaid programs, or Social Security beneficiaries, less money over time. As long as Democrats don’t end these programs, they feel comfortable starving them of funding.

I know, I’m painting with a broad brush. I’m sure some Democrats would rather strengthen the safety net than cut it. But in the end, I’ll go by the actions taken.

That’s the firmament on which this election will be decided, and unless more leaders go into government who shift that fault line to the left, around adequate safety nets and progressive taxation, nothing will change. Either that, or an independent movement outside government makes it impossible for the side touting their protection of Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security to do anything but actually protect it. I believe this is a real choice; there is a difference between ending it and just cutting it. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves about what that choice is.