Barack Obama was playing full-court press against Romney's prancing Rafalca on the issue of tax fairness and was winning. The specter of Romney's low-tax mega-wealth lowered Romney's general prospects and also advanced Obama's longstanding goal of making the tax system more progressive for a change. Romney's own plans had come under righteous scrutiny as another repeat of the top-down tax policy that has governed this young and harsh new millennium. Whoever wins in November will claim some kind of mandate on tax reform and if that winner is Obama, the strength of his veto pen to carve and shape that reform magnifies because Congressional Republicans will be forced to go back to worrying about their jobs instead of the President's.
Enter Paul Ryan. You may remember, in the days leading up to the 2008 conventions, the election was framed as a matter of Experience (McCain) versus Change (O). McCain sacrificed his Experience credential by picking Sarah Palin and tried to outdo Obama on the matter of Change. The same strategy underpins the emergence of Paul Ryan, though in a substantively different way and regarding a different choice. Hitherto, Romney's campaign of Experience was losing to Obama's "Forward" slogan. The public had largely accepted, indeed craved, progressive tax reform as an essential part of any future deficit and GDP-boosting measures. Now Romney and Ryan will try to seize the "Forward" slogan, just as McCain tried to seize the Change slogan, by pushing Medicare to the fore from the pert, well-shaved mouth of Paul Ryan.
Liberals are confident that the facts and larger public sentiment are on their side. For the moment, they are. But this hinges on a vision Obama must articulate boldly and quickly: entitlement reform must go hand-in-hand with progressive tax reform. Economists agree that deficit reduction and GDP growth will not come at the hands of cutting or taxing alone. The crown should go to the person who proffers the best bargain to this end. Romney and Ryan have made clear that they are cutting-only problem solvers. Obama will look like a taxing-only problem solver if he doesn't seize the last patch of high ground with his "balanced approach."
This means Obama will have to be more explicit about entitlement reform and vigorously defend the reforms he's already made. He will also have to point out how it has been the Republicans who have remained fixed on the same failed strategy -- cuts only plus massive cash for the rich -- and how Romney and Ryan have a very loud and proud record blocking balance at every turn. This is, after all, the fight Obama postponed in 2010 after Simpson-Bowles and again in 2010 after the mid-term fight over the Bush tax cuts. The debt-ceiling debacle of 2011 was yet another postponement. Somewhere along the line, Obama decided that this issue needed the popular mandate of an election to solve and now one is upon him. One hopes he's been preparing for this conflict because it just got louder and sharper. Romney has fastened his stake to an ultra-right wing plan with a pretty face. That is how they hope to make 2012 like 1980. But if Obama plays it right from here -- and he's had years to hone this pitch -- he can make 2012 like 1972, where an hysterical out-party overplayed their hand ... and facilitated a landslide for the President.