Rep. Paul Ryan is little known outside of Capitol Hill – offering Democrats an opportunity to fill the vacuum with the most unflattering pictures possible of the new Republican vice presidential candidate with the famously stringent budget plan. The clamor has already begun.
Brace yourself for graphic images as Democrats spin out their nightmare vision of President Mitt Romney in the Oval Office with the House Budget Committee chairman at his side. They’ve got a lot to work with, given Ryan’s proposals on Social Security, Medicare and domestic spending.
“These huge, Draconian spending cuts are going to have a real-world impact on real people,” said Ty Matsdorf, a spokesman for American Bridge, a pro-Obama super PAC that posted reams of “opposition research about Ryan early Saturday. “You can expect to see what these black and white numbers mean for real people, and we’ll contrast that with the wealthy people getting huge tax cuts under Romney’s plan.”
Under Ryan's “Path to Prosperity," military spending would remain the same while government spending on education, environmental protection, agriculture, and research would drop dramatically. Senior citizens would choose whether to stay in a traditional Medicare plan or move to a private one that offers lower premiums but caps spending. Critics have argued this would transfer much of the burden onto the seniors themselves, since health care costs continue to rise.
As for Medicaid and food stamps, Ryan would turn those two signature programs for poor people over to the states. Again, this would limit the cost to the federal government, but it would mean fewer people would be eligible.
On taxes, Ryan's plan proposes cuts that the non-partisan Tax Policy Center estimates would cost the federal government roughly $4 billion in revenue over 10 years. This would come from slashing both individual and corporate tax rates and establishing a new global tax system for corporations. Ryan says these cuts will stimulate growth and create jobs, though this supply-side theory of economics has not borne fruit over the last decade as the Bush-era tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 have been in effect.
While Ryan and the “Ryan budget” are well known in Washington and political circles, a recent CNN/ORC International poll found 54 percent of American adults had never heard of Ryan or had no opinion of him. In a positive sign for Ryan, more people had a favorable opinion of him (27 percent) than an unfavorable view (19 percent.)
Ryan’s impact on the Republican ticket will largely depend on the outcome of the message war to define his budget plan. Republicans emphasize its debt reductions, spending cuts and efforts to simplify the tax code, and long-term goal to “save” Medicare. When such details were relayed in a recent Democracy Corps poll of likely voters in competitive, GOP-held swing districts, 52 percent said they favored the GOP plan and 37 percent opposed.
But when presented with the Democratic view of Ryan’s plan, that it “privatizes Medicare, massively cuts health care spending for seniors, and freezes spending” so that seniors pay more for health care, more voters say they are more concerned about slashing Medicare than anything else. A Gallup poll similarly found Americans divided over the GOP budget blueprint.
The Democratic attack machine had already started targeting Ryan as speculation mounted this week that the Wisconsin congressman was Romney’s choice; on Saturday it went full throttle. The statement from President Obama’s campaign referred to Ryan’s policies as “radical,” “reckless” and catastrophic.” The arm of the Democratic Party in charge of House races crowed that Republican candidates have a “new running mate: Congressman Paul Ryan’s Republican budget that ends Medicare.” (No matter that the latest version of Ryan’s plan preserves traditional fee-for-service Medicare as an option.)
The Wisconsin congressman is the poster boy for the liberal left, anchoring fundraising appeals Saturday from the AFL-CIO to MoveOn.org to Democracy for America. “Today, Mitt Romney doubled down on his drive to destroy the middle class by selecting Paul Ryan, someone who wants to end Medicare as we know it, kill jobs for working families, and give tax breaks to the rich,” the AFL-CIO said in its appeal.
That’s not all Ryan wants. Don’t forget the tax breaks for “Big Oil and corporations that ship jobs overseas,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in a written statement.
Progressives are leaving no stone in Ryan’s record unturned. Planned Parenthood Action Fund zeroed in on his vote to end federal funding to its health clinics, “putting at risk the cancer screenings, birth control, STD testing and treatment, and other preventive care that nearly three million Americans rely on each year.” The pro-immigrant group American’s Voice hammered Ryan for voting against the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to young illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.
The anti-Ryan attacks that focus on Medicare and Social Security could be especially potent in Florida, the nation’s largest toss-up state and home to a large population of elderly and conscientious voters. Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith predicted his state will “wholeheartedly reject” a Romney-Ryan vision in which, he said, ‘”the wealthiest few are prioritized over the middle class, students and seniors.”
But in a sign that entitlement reform is not the “third rail” in politics that it once was in Florida, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was elected in 2010 even after backing the phase-in of a higher retirement age for receiving federal benefits. The risks inherent in the Democratic overdrive against the Ryan plan are that the party will be viewed by recession-weary voters as unwilling to curb federal spending and shave the deficit.
Nancy Cook and Steve Shepard contributed to this report.