Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate could deepen the intrinsic tension between the Republican policy agenda and the voters it relies on to win elections.
Ryan’s ambitious budget blueprint, as passed twice by House Republicans over the past two years, crystallizes the GOP’s highest policy priority: shrinking the size of the federal government, largely by dramatically restructuring entitlement programs led by Medicare and Medicaid. But the GOP today is increasingly dependent on the votes of older and blue-collar whites who -- while eager to scale back government programs that transfer income to the poor -- are much more resistant to retrenching entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security that largely benefit the middle-class.
Those attitudes haven’t stopped those voters from providing Republicans commanding margins in recent elections. But in polls, most of those older and blue-collar voters have consistently recoiled from the centerpiece proposal of Ryan’s budget: his initiative to convert Medicare from its existing structure, in which Washington pays doctors and hospitals directly for care they provide to seniors, into a premium support or voucher system that would provide seniors a fixed sum of money to either purchase private insurance or buy into the existing program.
Ryan is likely to bring energy and a propulsive sense of mission to a Romney campaign that has often seemed more about Power Points than passion. But Democrats believe that Romney’s elevation of the Ryan plan could allow them to cut into the big advantages that polls this year show Romney continuing to enjoy among both blue-collar and older whites.
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“By putting Ryan on the ticket, the Ryan budget is their vision for the country,” said veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who wrote a memo last Sunday urging his party to nationalize both the presidential and congressional campaigns around Ryan’s budget. “They think the biggest problem of government is the money being spent on universal programs that older white non-college and working class voters depend on to have a middle class retirement. All that to pay for breathtaking tax cuts for the wealthiest. These are anti-elitist voters who are going to want very little to do with their vision and these two men.”
Veteran GOP consultant David Carmen acknowledges that such attitudes could threaten the GOP’s solidifying dominance among downscale whites. But he says for Romney that is a risk worth taking to broaden the campaign debate beyond the more personal issues that have dominated the discussion so far. “The issue is who defines whether the GOP is saving Medicare or killing it,” Carmen said. “But it’s a bold elevation of the whole campaign and I think that whoever gets to positive faster and more credibly is going to score big. It’s hope and growth one more time.”
The electoral impact of Ryan’s plan is so crucial because less affluent whites have become so central to the GOP’s electoral prospects. Republicans have carried a majority of white seniors in each presidential election since 2000, with their share of the vote among them rising from 52 percent that year to 55 percent in 2004 to 58 percent in 2008; they soared to 63 percent with those voters in the 2010 House elections, according to exit polls. Over the past three presidential elections, Republicans have also amassed commanding margins among blue-collar whites, attracting around three-fifths of them each time; those voters also gave GOP House candidates 63 percent of their votes in 2010. Polls this year have found President Obama struggling with both older and blue-collar whites -- though recent Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times surveys have shown the president regaining some ground in battleground states with non-college white women, the so-called “waitress moms.”
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Though Ryan’s budget is often described as a deficit-reduction package, it is focused at least as much on fundamentally reducing Washington’s role in society. Ryan’s plan envisions continuing (though reduced) deficits until 2040, largely because it maintains the tax cuts passed under George W. Bush and seeks a further reduction in the top marginal rate for the highest earners to 25 percent -- the lowest level since 1931. (Romney has proposed cutting the top rate to 28 percent.) Simultaneously Ryan’s plan aims to significantly reduce long-term federal spending by converting Medicaid into a block grant, transforming Medicare into a premium support program, and squeezing domestic discretionary programs over time to levels unseen since World War II. Still, the Congressional Budget Office calculated in March that Ryan’s plan would shrink federal spending, as a share of the economy, to just 16 percent by 2050 -- a level not seen since 1950, before not only Medicare, Medicaid and federal education aid, but the interstate highway system.
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