It’s hard to tell who’s happiest now that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan is joining the Republican ticket. Conservatives love him as one of their own, while Democrats see him as making their job a whole lot easier. For months, Democrats have been calling the budget plan that Ryan authored “the Romney-Ryan plan,” and now it’s official. There’s no more pretense, and Democrats are gleefully dusting off their tried-and-true playbooks on running against Republicans for wanting to “end Medicare as we know it” and cutting benefits for seniors to fund tax cuts for the rich.
The well-worn approach has lost steam in recent elections, but the presence of Ryan adds new energy since he advocates a plan that would cap government subsidies and essentially turn Medicare into a voucher system. A poll taken last year after Ryan introduced his proposal showed it unpopular among all adults, 58 to 35 in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey, with 74 percent of senior citizens and 54 percent of conservatives disapproving. Newt Gingrich called it “right-wing social engineering.”
Democrats intended to run on Medicare regardless of whom Romney picked, but having Ryan in the catbird seat crystallizes the campaign. “It’s only a scare campaign if they make it up” says Samuel Popkin, author of the recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—and Hold—the White House. Romney survived the primaries in part by endorsing the Ryan plan. By taking him as his running mate, he doubles down on Ryan’s ideas, which advocate the overhaul of entitlement programs, principally Medicare and Medicaid, that Democrats can fairly describe as a radical restructuring.
Talking points that the Romney campaign circulated among the party faithful after the announcement of Ryan advise language that says Romney “salutes” Ryan for going in the right direction with his budget, but that once elected, there would be a Romney budget. Democrats will not let Romney skitter away from Ryan, making the selection of the budget chairman “logical and necessary,” says Popkin. “This campaign is about the Ryan budget, so you might as well have the best defender. He’s the only consistent fiscal energy in the party.”
Ryan rallies the GOP so Romney can go to Tampa and be confident of a unified convention, but the 42-year-old wunderkind also energizes Democrats as the protectors of Medicare. Asked earlier this year what the election would be about, Rep. Steve Israel, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), replied, “Medicare, Medicare, Medicare.” In a statement after the Ryan selection, Israel called the GOP ticket “a match made in millionaires’ heaven, but they’ll be a nightmare for seniors who’ve earned their Medicare benefits. For the last 18 months, we’ve said Republicans will have to defend the indefensible—their vote to end Medicare.”
GOP strategist Brad Blakeman, who worked in the Bush White House, says that to counter this kind of rhetoric, Romney and Ryan are going to have to do a better job explaining to the voters what they are proposing. “So much of Ryan’s plan is ‘big ifs,’ like repealing Obamacare. There are holes to be filled, and now’s the time to do it.”
Democrats are guessing that just as with Romney’s tax returns, revealing exactly what they would cut from voters’ favorite programs could be worse than taking the heat for withholding controversial specifics. One side will make its case that the country will be in ruin if these programs are not tackled; the other side will say there are two paths out of the mess—our way is safe. Both are right, with Ryan shaping the contest around his vision in a way that Romney could regret if the Democrats’ old-time music sways voters like it’s supposed to.