Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- The election of 2012 is a critical juncture in the history of this nation. We now have to decide if we love our country enough to do the responsible thing -- rein in out-of-control spending, cut the debt and reform crumbling entitlement programs. This will not be easy, but it's right and what's necessary for the preservation of our republic. Rep. Paul Ryan is the right choice for such a time.
The president has not led; Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will lead, and ultimately, they will lead us back on the path to prosperity.
Ryan's path to vice presidential nominee is a culmination of decades of outspoken conservatism. Early on, only a few of his colleagues at Empower America, a conservative, free-market Washington think tank, like Jack Kemp and me, heard him. Now, the entire country will hear him.
The effervescent congressmen from Wisconsin, who leads Congress in grueling P90X workouts most mornings, first emerged onto the national political scene with his Roadmap, a first of its kind detailed plan to reform America's budget, tax code, health care system and Social Security system. He said what few politicians would say -- America has overspent, over-promised and under-delivered.
Over time this young budget guru, who once told me he relaxes by kicking back with actuarial tables, began to master the U.S. budget in a way that few ever have. He was appointed to be a member of the president's Bowles-Simpson Commission, but, not yielding to political pressure, voted against its recommendations because it failed to adequately reform Medicare. So, together with Alice Rivlin (Bill Clinton's former OMB director), Ryan co-authored the Ryan-Rivlin plan to seriously reform Medicare (although she didn't support the version of it he included in his all-encompassing budget).
Their plan fell largely on deaf ears, but just because Washington wasn't listening, Ryan didn't stop leading. He joined forces with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, to co-author a bipartisan plan to reform Medicare. Their plan leaves Medicare intact for existing recipients and those approaching eligibility and offers future enrollees a chance to enroll in the traditional Medicare government option or enroll in a premium support plan, where seniors can choose from a variety of competitive plans that work best for them.
During his tenure as House Budget Chairman, Ryan has penned several of the House budget plans. Although his 2012 budget didn't pass the Democrat-led Senate, it garnered far more votes than President Obama's budget, and proposed far more serious reforms.
Ryan's conservative credentials are unquestionable. Republicans will never forget how he grilled President Obama at the health care summit in 2010. But, equally important, if not more, is his record of bipartisan leadership. When the time comes and Democrats demonize Ryan's Medicare reform plans, he can hold up Wyden and Clinton-era welfare reformers as his defenders.
More than budget and economic expertise, and he has a lot of it, Ryan brings to the Romney ticket a clear, detailed vision forward for America, a vision that stretches across party lines. Ryan adds youthful optimism and a dash of Jack Kemp's infectious charisma to Gov. Romney's business prowess and management skills. For Romney this is the bold action many in his party have been waiting for.
All the cards are now on the table. Two competing visions of America's future -- one a nation governed by a large, intrusive caretaker and the other a nation of small government and individual autonomy -- are at stake this November.
As has been well said about our founding, we are a nation of choice and reflection.
If the American people listen to Romney and Ryan and their serious proposals to restore American prosperity, Romney and Ryan have a chance at winning. If the American people listen to political pandering and ad hominem attacks, they will probably lose.
Romney and Ryan will now make the case; the American people will decide.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.