A presidential race noteworthy for its lack of substance has taken a dramatic turn for the better with the arrival of Wisconsin budget wonk Paul Ryan.

The presence of the boyish seven-term congressman and House Budget Committee chairman, tapped this weekend as Republican Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick, will elevate the long-running, bitter debate over the nation's deficit spending.

Ryan's willingness to specify where he'd cut and how he'd balance the budget puts the burden on President Obama and the Democrats to respond with similarly detailed proposals. That would be a welcome change from politicians' usual mush about "efficiencies" that cause many to mistakenly believe that cuts will be painless and won't affect them personally.

It's Ryan's willingness and ability to delve into the weeds of the nation's budget -- and commit his ideas to writing -- that have made him a rising political star. Over the past few years, he's offered up thoughtful, if problematic, game plans for reducing deficit spending and the nation's $14-trillion-plus long-term debt.

Ryan also has risked the wrath of one of the nation's most powerful special-interest groups -- senior citizens -- with controversial proposals to control Medicare costs through vouchers. These would help seniors buy private insurance but would not necessarily cover the cost of doing so.

There's much to dislike about Ryan's unbalanced approach for austerity. Programs like Medicare shouldn't be in the cross hairs while defense spending and tax cuts for the rich are protected. But Ryan deserves credit for stating his priorities. He can also eloquently explain these complex topics and make his case for controversial reforms compellingly and charmingly -- formidable political gifts that should have Democrats feeling anxious rather than smug about Ryan's controversial image.

In short, Ryan is the "Anti-Palin," a welcome contrast from John McCain's ill-advised vice presidential pick in 2008. In choosing the Wisconsin congressman, Romney has addressed a key concern about himself -- that he's a staid, play-it-safe kind of candidate. Romney has also adroitly, though not without risk, shifted the debate from his past to the nation's future.

It's interesting to note that Ryan is the first member of Generation X to appear on a major party's presidential ticket. At age 42, he is a member of the first and far less influential demographic group to follow the sprawling baby boomers. It will be striking to see his youthful appearance next to the elder statesman Joe Biden when the two debate.

It's members of Ryan's generation, and of those that follow, who should be most closely watching the debate over Medicare that Ryan's presence on the ticket will spur. They're the ones who will likely be affected by any changes.

The program provides health care for those 65 and older. Many Medicare overhaul proposals -- such as Ryan's -- call for protecting those age 55 and older from any changes. This makes sense politically, since seniors are a mighty bloc of voters.

But is it the fair thing to do? So far, few have asked that question, but it needs to be aired, particularly with Ryan in the race. Balancing the nation's budget and reducing debt ought to involve shared sacrifice.

Because of the widespread shift from generous company-run pension plans, younger generations already face an uphill battle to save for retirement. Should they also pay into a system that provides fuller benefits for their elders, yet expects them to save more for their own health expenses after retirement? Is it reasonable to suppose they can do so?

Ryan must provide an answer. But President Obama also must do better. Medicare's cost is soaring. Rather than merely attacking Ryan's plan, Obama should explain what's necessary to sustain Medicare benefits. If it's a tax increase, how much? If there are other measures to bend the cost curve, what are they?

Answers are needed. Ryan's presence suggests that finally, this election might provide them.


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