Thanks to Paul Ryan, Campaign 2012 is now a two-front class war.
Mitt Romney wanted the election to be a straight-up referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy. Obama responded by framing the race as a choice between an incumbent middle-class champion and a corporate raider whose plans would only help the rich.
Polls suggested Obama’s frame was winning out. Romney continues to trail, even though voters dislike Obama’s handling of the economy and trust Romney more to fix it, and even though Romney has spent a lot of time and money pushing a narrative of Obama hating success.
Poor and middle-class workers tolerate fewer attacks on the rich in America than in other developed nations; most of them still believe that if they work hard enough, they’ve got a shot to get rich, too. Still, it’s tough to win a class war squarely on the side of the wealthy. Aspirational voters don’t like the possibility that government policy is rigged to help the rich get richer and keep the middle class from getting ahead. That’s where Obama’s attacks have connected.
That’s also why putting Ryan on the ticket is a chance for Romney to turn the class attacks back on Obama, reframing the election as a choice between a challenger who wants to boost the middle class and a president who wants to funnel hard-earned middle-class tax dollars to the poor.
America is about to learn a lot about Ryan’s signature legislative proposal, the House Republican budget. Democrats will howl about its goal of converting Medicare to a “premium support” system that gives seniors checks to buy health coverage. That’s the risk of picking Ryan, as Republicans well know.
Republicans, though, could use the Ryan budget as a class-war weapon. It reduces federal spending and brings down the debt – ideas middle-class voters love in concept. And it does so, over the long term, by carving huge chunks of spending growth off programs to help the poor. By 2050, the Congressional Budget Office estimated this year, the Ryan plan would reduce spending on Medicaid and the federal children’s health insurance program to one-quarter of the level it is otherwise projected to reach.
Tack on Romney’s proposed tax cut – similar to Ryan’s plan in both the size of its reduction in marginal rates and the lack of detail about what tax expenditures would go away to offset lost revenue – and you’re looking at a decidedly conservative class appeal: more money for middle class workers, less for the wards of the government.
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Romney ran early iterations of this argument all last week, with his claims – refuted by independent fact-checkers – that Obama was stripping work requirements from federal welfare programs. Ryan scales up the argument, quickly. It’s no accident that Ryan’s introductory bus tour will roll through blue-collar Virginia under the banner of the “Romney Plan for a Stronger Middle Class.”
The strategy carries big risks. Worst case for Republicans, the move could fire up a less-enthused Democratic base and turn swing voters against them. This is what Democratic consultants Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Erica Seifert predicted in July, in a strategy memo drawn from polling and focus groups focused squarely on Ryan’s plan.
“Obama’s lead against Romney more than doubles when the election is framed as a choice between the two candidates’ positions on the Ryan budget– particularly its impact on the most vulnerable,” the consultants wrote, adding that Obama makes “significant gains” among unmarried women, young voters, and Latinos when voters hear specific details about how the Ryan budget would affect education, the poor, and the elderly.
But in a best-case Republican scenario, the new frame puts Democrats on their heels and lets Romney steal the “hope” card from the former Hope and Change candidate.
Obama would be stuck defending welfare and Medicaid instead of jabbing Romney for high-income tax cuts. Republican donors and core conservative voters would be energized. Aspirational middle-class voters would see Romney as the optimist and Obama as the defeatist: The Republican wants them to get rich. The Democrat wants them dependent on the state. That’s a choice election the GOP would take any year.