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Editorial: Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan makes 'big ideas' debate possible

Now that conservative budget warrior Paul Ryan is slotted into the No. 2 spot on the Republican presidential ticket, the stage is set for a rare political event: A campaign that is actually about big ideas. The public should demand nothing less.

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney have starkly different visions of the proper size of government and its role in American life. Fundamental to that divide is how much government taxes and spends, and that's where Ryan has made his mark while representing his Wisconsin district in Congress.

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he crafted a controversial budget proposal for 2012 that was passed by the GOP-dominated House of Representatives but rejected in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Whether you favor his prescription for deep cuts in spending and taxes, which Romney largely shares, or Obama's vision of targeted cuts, key investments and increased tax revenue, Ryan has helped tee up an adult debate the nation desperately needs at this pivotal moment in its history.

A campaign that gives voters a clear choice between competing views on issues such as government regulation, Social Security, Medicare, health care, green energy and military spending is the best hope that either Obama or Romney will enter the White House in January with a mandate for decisive action. Without that strong mandate, the nation will be in for more dispiriting ideological warfare and policy paralysis, which it can ill afford.

Stubborn unemployment, sluggish economic growth, ruinously costly health care, uncompetitive schools, growing poverty and crumbling infrastructure are undermining our ability to prosper in the global economy. To turn that around, the nation faces a momentous decision. The key choice is who will lead us for the next four years and where they will take us. But so far the presidential campaign has been a desultory affair.

Bumper sticker-level discourse such as "Obamaloney" and "Romneyhood" has taken the place of substantive debate, and we could be in for much worse. If the campaigns sink into the mud and stay there, irresponsibly demagoguing opposing positions on serious issues, thoughtful voters will look back come January and decry the shameful waste of a precious opportunity.

Unfortunately, even if Obama and Romney campaigns take the high road, there's no guarantee that super PACs and other players, who by law are not controlled by the candidates, won't carpet-bomb key regions of the country with attack ads that bear only a passing resemblance to the truth. A well-funded disinformation campaign spewing a vision-distorting fog would make it all but impossible for voters to send a message about the nation's future. The public should sidestep the dirt and those who shovel it. People spending to elect presidents rely on negative ads that gin up controversy for one simple reason: They work. If voters reject them they'll be abandoned. So there is a real opportunity to make this year different.

Voters should insist on a serious campaign befitting the serious times.