Ryan urges GOP candidates to 'prepare the country' for tax, entitlement reform

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday urged his party’s presidential candidates to make the 2012 election a stark choice between policy differences so that massive changes on taxes and entitlements can be enacted quickly next year.

“We just can’t have an ordinary election where it is a personality contest,” Ryan said at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “We can’t simply win this thing by default, by running against all the bad news.”

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He said the election needs to be one in which the GOP clearly explains to voters that it will implement ideas like Ryan’s premium support plan for Medicare. He said that President George W. Bush did not prepare the country adequately for tax and Social Security reform in 2004, and then failed to accomplish them.

“You have got to prepare the country,” he said.

He singled out Mitt Romney's speech last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference as an example of the rhetoric he would like to see.

“I think he is stepping into that groove,” he said. He noted that "even Newt" now backs the Medicare reforms in the House-passed 2012 budget.

Ryan said the stakes for the election could not be higher, given the debt trajectory of the budget and the fact the “tax code blows up” in 2013 when Bush-era rates automatically expire.

“The stakes of this election could not be higher. I have never seen anything like it,” he said.

Ryan said he was not concerned his party will be portrayed as favoring tax breaks for the rich while taking away benefits for the poor.

“I don’t worry about what people who disagree with my policies are going to say,” he said. “They are going to say what they are going to say.”

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Ryan said staffers are preparing legislative options for the post-election session to temporarily raise the debt ceiling while an overhaul of the tax code and entitlements is developed. 

He said he is not sure if the party will have “legislative text ready to rock and roll” on the day after the election, however, and that the presidential nominee will play a large role in defining the parameters of tax reform.

Ryan was pressed on what he will do if President Obama is reelected, especially on whether the GOP will relent and allow tax increases on the wealthy.

Ryan said he prefers not to think about that scenario and hopes Obama will embrace tax reform that simplifies the code while lowering the rates.

He said more and more Democrats are open to a version of Medicare support he has developed with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that keeps traditional Medicare as an option. He would not name names, however, saying these Democrats are too afraid at this time to come forward. He expects a bipartisan solution on Medicare if the GOP takes the White House.

Asked if he will once again take a pass on Social Security reform in his budget, Ryan spoke approvingly of the means-testing and benefit limitations in the Bowles-Simpson plan.

He said that privatized accounts for Social Security “has not come up,” this year, however.

Ryan reiterated his displeasure with the payroll tax deal that was struck in Congress since the $100 billion price of the tax cut was not offset. He blamed Democrats for refusing to find offsets for it.

“The reality of divided government is sinking in,” he said.

Asked whether he would consider an offer to run for vice president in the fall, Ryan wouldn't rule it out, though he said he's not giving it any thought at the moment. 

— This story was updated at 11:44 a.m.