The GOP’s ‘Hunger Games’

Mitt Romney is a bit of a sci-fi buff. He not only took his grandkids to see “The Hunger Games” when the movie came out but also read the Suzanne Collins trilogy. I wonder whether he was thinking about the books when he picked Paul Ryan to be his running mate.

On the surface, Romney would seem to be the opposite of the series’ heroine. Katniss Everdeen is young, female and stomach-grumbling poor; Romney is a grandfather who’s brought-up-to-it rich. But the two have this much in common: Both are highly skilled individuals except in the personality department.

In a dystopian world that forces lottery-selected teens to hunt and kill one another in an annual contest, Katniss knows how to set snares, which plants to grub in the wild and how to shoot a squirrel in the eye with a bow and arrow. She is a highly skilled teenager.

But Everdeen has a handicap. She must attract sponsors who can help her in an emergency. Her coach tells her: “You’ve got the top training score. People are intrigued, but no one knows who you are.”

Sound familiar?

For his part, Romney ran a private equity firm that yielded a stunning average rate of return of 88 percent; he won a governor’s race as a Republican in a very blue state; he passed a sweeping health care plan; and he put together a 2012 campaign team that shredded primary challengers in short order. He is a highly skilled candidate and a wildly successful problem-solver, but voters aren’t sure who he is and what his core beliefs are.

This is where Ryan comes in. Everyone in Washington recognizes the need to reform entitlement spending, but neither the Obama administration nor Romney has laid out a plan to fix the mess with enough detail and directness to anger any valued constituency.

As House Budget Committee chairman, however, Ryan has incurred the wrath of the senior lobby by presenting a plan to recast Medicare. Under his plan, starting in 2023, seniors would be able to enroll in traditional fee-for-service Medicare or private health care plans; Washington would cap premiums.

White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer called it a plan to “end Medicare as we know it.” But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who worked with Ryan on the outline, rightly countered that unless Washington acts to curb costs, Medicare won’t be recognizable in the future.

Last year, Newt Gingrich dismissed the Ryan plan as “right-wing social engineering” and then took back his words. Romney said he was “on the same page” as Ryan from the start. That’s not exactly a profile in courage, but in this weak-kneed political climate, it passes for fiscal responsibility.

Vice President Joe Biden described the Ryan pick as giving “definition to the vague commitments that Romney has made.” I think he’s right.

We know how Romney won the GOP primary game. He was disciplined. He was skilled. He was better than bumbling opponents. He wooed the base with his mantra of tax cuts, tax cuts and more tax cuts.

The general election is a tougher contest. President Barack Obama and Biden are pros at promising something for nothing. They’ve convinced their base that the federal government can keep growing — and in a fiscally responsible way — if only Republicans would let them tax the top 2 percent of income earners just a little bit more.

Romney can’t beat the Democratic ticket at that game, but he can beat them by being the adult in the room. In picking the spending-cut-minded Ryan as his running mate, Romney has become more credible.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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