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Paul Ryan says he wants to have a debate over his Medicare proposals and, to prove his point, he is taking his show to the belly of the beast of senior hostility over the issue on Saturday—none other than the Villages in Central Florida, the largest retirement community in the country.
But Ryan isn't going alone. He's taking reinforcements in the form of his mom, Betty Douglas, a 78-year-old snowbird who spends part of the year in Florida's Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
Taking your mom to work isn't the typical maneuver on an average day in politics, but for Republicans essentially being accused of elder abuse by Democrats for their support of Ryan's past proposals to privatize Medicare and Social Security, the politics of showing mom by your side are powerful, and in some cases around the country, highly effective.
The upsides are obvious. Who better to vouch for Paul Ryan to the general public than his own mother, whom Ryan referenced in a 60 Minutes recently interview when he insisted he has no interest in leaving seniors to fend for themselves, as the Obama campaign has suggested, with the cuts he has proposed to entitlement programs. Another plus: Seeing a candidate's mom on the campaign trail or in a political ad can give fellow seniors a powerful point of connection to the candidate himself, like another friend of family member.
But there are also downsides to sending your mom out into the wilds of a political campaign, including the risk of looking like you've brought your mother to fight your battles for you.
But in Ryan's case, Benjamin Bates, an associate professor of communication studies at Ohio University, says the good will almost certainly outweigh the bad when Ryan's mom joins him on the trail.
In one Democratic ad, a Ryan look-alike is shown literally wheeling an elderly woman to her death by throwing her over the side of a mountain.
"When Paul Ryan's mother stands next to him on the stage, the audience members can see themselves as standing with Paul Ryan, too," Bates explained, and that goes for the seniors watching Paul and Betty at the Villages and anyone who sees them later on TV or in subsequent ads.
Ryan also has a higher bar than most candidates to clear because he has already been targeted by Democrats as the architect of Republicans' plans to "throw Granny off the cliff" with cuts to Medicare and Social Security. In one Democratic ad, a Ryan look-alike is shown literally wheeling an elderly woman to her death by throwing her over the side of a mountain.
"By making that attack that personal and that vivid, Ryan's got to trot out his own little old lady who supports him," Bates explains. "If he's accused of throwing Grandma off the cliff, then he has to bring in Mom, because that's pretty much the only way to defend against Grandma."
But it's not just Ryan having to bring out the big guns. Other Republicans are using the same defense now that Ryan is on the GOP presidential ticket and his budget has become a battleground for races across the country. (So far this cycle, strategists say no Democrats have called their moms in off the sidelines.)
Republican Senate hopeful Rick Berg in North Dakota has put out two ads featuring his mother, Francie, defending her son against accusations that her son would gut Medicare because he voted for Ryan's budget in the House.
"Hi, it's Francie Berg again," she says in one ad, speaking to the audience from her kitchen table with a cup of coffee. "I'm here to let you know I count on my Social Security and Medicare. Rick would never do anything to harm Social Security or Medicare."
Dr. Bates says the ads are effective because they let North Dakota voters forge a personal relationship with Mrs. Berg. "We're in her home in these ads. It's like sitting down with an old friend," he says. With a relationship established, Berg can then ask voters to believe what she says about her son.
But the Ryan budget has been a focal point of House races for the past several years, and therefore, so have candidates' moms. In 2011, Rep. Mark Amodei, a Nevada Republican, successfully used his 79-year-old mother in a House special-election race to defend him against charges that he would gut Medicare based on his support for the Ryan plan.
In one of the two ads that Joy Amodei appeared in, Mark Amodei tells voters he will "work to support and improve" Medicare, and his mother adds, "You'd better, Mark. I'm counting on you."
Bates says the Amodei ad works because any senior watching the ad can identify with Mrs. Amodei. "Any elderly person could see themselves as saying to Mark Amodei, 'I'm counting on you to protect my Social Security,' and he promises his mother, which stands for all mothers, that he'll protect their entitlements."
Bringing out cute moms isn't a new phenomenon. John McCain cut an ad with his mother, Roberta, in 2008, to introduce himself to voters, while Barack Obama relied on old footage of his late mother to explain why he wanted to pass health-care reform to expand health-insurance coverage.
But the 2012 election cycle, with its focus on Medicare, presents candidates of both parties with the need to convince seniors, more than anyone else, that they will be better off with their side in charge. In some cases, the stakes are so high, it will be a job only a mom can really do.
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