U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (L) and vice-presidential candidate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), answer questions from audience members during a town hall meeting campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire August 20, 2012. Reuters/Brian Snyder

Last week, in the wake of Representative Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, there was a rare moment of agreement across the political spectrum. Both liberals and conservatives concluded that Ryan’s addition to the ticket would make the campaign a choice between his radical right-wing vision of privatizing Medicare and block-granting Medicaid and President Obama’s desire to preserve guaranteed health coverage for vulnerable Americans. Both sides relished the fight, believing it would be to their benefit.

Now conservative pundits and activists are celebrating this supposed development. On Fox News Sunday, Karl Rove said, “There was going to be a battle about Medicare, no matter what. The question was: Was it going to be left to what the Democrats traditionally do—which is late-night phone calls in the final week of the campaigns, to seniors, and scary mail pieces? Or were we going to have a full-out, honest debate? And we’re having, for what passes in politics, a full-out, honest debate about it.” The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, also on the program, added, “It feels more like a movement and less like a couple hundred people in Boston, working very hard to kind of push the boulder up the hill—and more like a genuine, exciting cause.”

Alas, no such thing has occurred. Ryan has a reputation for political bravery and commitment to principle, and on the campaign trail Republicans such as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli have tried to claim that merely by picking Ryan, Romney has demonstrated he also possesses those virtues. But when it comes to healthcare policy, the Romney/Ryan ticket is being cowardly and dishonest. When they give stump speeches they do not emphasize, or even mention, their radical, unpopular plans to leave seniors without adequate health coverage. Instead, the deliberately obscure the issue by attacking Obama for “raiding” Medicare to pay for the Affordable Care Act. It is nothing but a transparent pander to the GOP’s base of older voters. Unless Kristol’s “genuine cause” is to confuse and mislead the American people—always a distinct possibility—then his comment makes no sense.

All Romney/Ryan are doing is trying to hide from the American public just how badly they would shred the social safety net in order to pay for giving themselves giant tax cuts.

Ryan actually included the savings from cuts to wasteful private subsidies in the Medicare Advantage program that the ACA enacted—the same ones he now inveighs against in every speech—in his own budget. The reason he kept them in his budget, even while he votes to repeal the ACA and therefore would lose them, is because it gives him more breathing room. Take away those savings, and Ryan would have to come up with even more cuts to other popular programs.

The Obama campaign is understandably aggravated by their opponents’ cowardly refusal to stand and fight. On Saturday, after a typically evasive appearance by Ryan in Florida, Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner issued the following statement. “Congressman Ryan didn’t tell seniors in Florida today that if he had his way, seniors would face higher Medicare premiums and prescription drug costs, and would be forced to pay out of pocket for preventive care.… He didn’t say that they’d turn Medicare into a voucher system, ending the Medicare guarantee and raising costs by $6,400 a year for seniors. And he certainly didn’t say that they’d do it all to pay for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. But those are the facts, and the ‘substantive’ debate he claims they want requires Romney and Ryan to be honest about them.”

Having a substantive debate about how to balance the budget is something liberals and conservatives should both want. Unfortunately, the Republicans are afraid to do so.