Paul Ryan Selling Economic Pain With a Smile

Terrance Heath

To hear some progressive bloggers tell it, Paul Ryan’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address was an utter failure, and the GOP blundered in picking him to carry its message. But the true measure of a speech’s success is how well the speaker reaches the intended audience, with the intended effect. Given the job of reaching two audiences — reassuring one of the purity of his politics, while allaying the fears of the other about the likely results of his politics —  Ryan may well have succeeded by appearing to fail.

Granted, Obama is a tough act to follow when it comes to speech-making. And Michelle Bachmann, delivering the Tea Party rebuttal on CNN, had more entertainment value. (I hung on for her speech the way some people stay up to hear the opening monologue of their favorite late night TV host.) Next to them, I found Ryan’s speech something of a yawner. That’s probably because it wasn’t for me. In other words, whether you give a good speech or not depends a lot on who you’re talking to, and Ryan certain wasn’t talking to me or anyone else on my end of the political spectrum.

Two speeches from the GOP after the State of the Union might could be taken as evidence of the fractured state of the right wing of American politics. Yet, as Jay Newton Small pointed out at Swampland, both Bachmann and Ryan hit many of the same notes. 

Bachmann and Paul hit many of the same notes: the deficit is unacceptably large, as is the government. Dems have been on a smorgasbord of spending and regulation and need to be reined in. And while both focused on Obama and the Democrats, both speeches were equally aimed at each other: Ryan in placating the Tea Party and the Tea Party in holding him and the establishment accountable. The dueling speeches also showed the challenge the GOP leaders have in unifying their party and demonstrated that they will have to spend as much, if not more time, looking inwards – or to the right – as they do dealing Obama and the Democrats.

Both Ryan and Bachmann relitigated the last two years – the stimulus, health care reform, new regulations — sometimes with a brittle edge. Looking forward, they focused solely on slashing spending and shrinking the deficit; they ventured into no new policies or issues. Neither detailed how balancing the books might be done: no mentions were made of entitlement or defense spending, by far the biggest pieces in the budget. They did not look at places where Democrats and Republicans could find common ground. By contrast Obama sounded conciliatory; he named a range of areas where he hoped to work with Republicans from Afghanistan to reforming medical malpractice to clean energy technology. Obama said the word “forward” five times and only addressed his record of the past two years once, when he made the case why not to repeal health care reform. By comparison, Ryan never uttered the word “forward” and Bachmann said it only once. Granted, sweeping and visionary rhetoric is hard to pull off in a short rebuttal, but both speeches focused so intently on budget issues it was hard not to come off as one-noted.

The two couldn’t appear more different. Bachmann, is dearly loved by the Tea Party wing of the Republican party, which played a significant role the GOP taking back the majority in the House. However, GOP leadership seems to want nothing so much as for her to go away. Her penchant for outrageous statements, utter lack of knowledge about our constitution and /or our history. Her antics on CNN probably did little to endear her to leadership, but do underscore that the GOP can really deny her either. It creates a bit of a sticky situation for Republicans: How to keep Bachmann and the constituency she represents in the fold, without alienating the majority of Americans who, well, aren’t the Tea Party?

This is where Paul Ryan comes in. While he’s never been quite the bomb-throwing, headline-generator that Bachmann is, the GOP hasn’t always been completely comfortable with Ryan. When he presented his "Roadmap for America’s Future," Republicans didn’t know what do do with it or him. It wasn’t that the disagreed with anything the "Roadmap" had to say. In fact, conservatives disagreed with very little of it. It’s just that much of it was "unsayable" without committing political suicide.

In other words, it may have been everything conservatives wanted, but the knew it would be hard to sell to the country because most Americans didn’t (and still don’t) want it. Even as Republicans were thrilled by what Ryan’s Roadmap laid out, they knew what was a masterpiece to them would be a nightmare to most Americans.

Where Ryan’s "Roadmap" would take us has been thoroughly plotted out by now. Citizens for Tax Justice summed it up thusly:

It’s difficult to design a tax plan that will lose $2 trillion over a decade even while requiring 90 percent of taxpayers to pay more. But Congressman Paul Ryan has met that daunting challenge. This analysis makes obvious that Congressman Ryan’s budget plan has nothing to do with balancing the budget, but has everything to do with creating a system that takes more from the poor and less from the rich.

According to CTJ, Ryan’s plan would mean:

  • The federal government would collect $183 billion less in 2011 and more than $2 trillion less over a decade than it would if Congress adopted President Obama’s tax proposals.
  • Federal taxes would be lower for the richest ten percent, and higher for all other income groups, than they would be if President Obama’s proposals were enacted.
  • The bottom 80 percent of taxpayers would pay about $1,700 more, on average, than they would if President Obama’s proposals were enacted.
  • The richest one percent would pay about $211,300 less on average than they would if President Obama’s proposals were enacted.
  • The poorest 20 percent would pay 12.3 percent of their income more than what they would pay under the President’s proposal, while the richest one percent would pay 15 percent of their income less than they would pay under the President’s proposal.

At the Economic Policy Institute, Andrew Fielding adds more highlights.

The Roadmap is riddled with policies that ignore the lessons learned from the Great Depression and underscored by the Great Recession. Policy and market failures set the stage for a meltdown of the global financial system and the worst recession since the Great Depression, but Ryan’s plan still swears by the failed Bush-era economic policies of cutting taxes for the wealthy while neglecting the middle class and national investments. It even proposes the partial privatization of Social Security, an increase in taxes on the middle class, the elimination of corporate taxes, and the privatization of Medicare.

  • Raising taxes only on those Americans making between $20,000 and $200,000, while slashing taxes in half for the wealthiest Americans. The middle class would pay higher average tax rates than millionaires – an unprecedented reversal of progressive U.S. tax policy.
  • Eliminating taxation of corporate income and replacing it with a consumption tax that would disproportionately hit middle-class Americans.
  • Placing the entire burden of deficit reduction on spending cuts. The Ryan Roadmap prioritizes dismantling social insurance programs, not balancing the budget.
  • Replacing Medicare and Medicaid with inadequate vouchers to purchase health insurance in a broken marketplace.
  • Privatizing Social Security for wealthy Americans and ending Social Security’s role as universal social insurance with benefits tied to lifetime earnings.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities went into detail, spelling out the various dead ends to which Ryan’s "Roadmap" leads.

  • The Ryan plan would end Medicare as we know it, most of Medicaid, and all of Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), converting them to vouchers that would not keep pace with rising costs of health care. Yet low income families, the elderly, and the handicapped would be expected buy insurance in the private market with vouchers will cover less and less.
  • The Ryan plan proposes large cuts in Social Security, and would divert savings to fund private accounts rather than restore solvency to the program.
  • The Ryan plan, as a result of costly tax cuts for the wealthy, would allow the federal government’s debt to continue rising, in relation to the size of the economy, for at least another 40 years.
  • The Ryan plan would erode employer sponsored health coverage, by eliminating the tax exclusion and replacing it with a refundable tax credit or voucher.

No wonder the GOP was nervous. If it was enough to frighten them, how would the rest of America receive it? Better not to call too much attention to it, at least until they figured how how to sell it.

Back to the Bachmann/Ryan comparison. They hit the same notes because they’re singing from the same sheet music. But where Bachmann can sound a bit unhinged, Ryan comes across as personable, reasonable, and even likeable. It may not sound like it, but their singing the same song; Bachmann for the hardcore, and Ryan for the rest of us. The Tea Party isn’t separate from the Republicans, but maybe more Republican than the Republicans are or want to appear to be.

It’s just that Ryan’s delivery was a bit less trying, and a bit more modulated than Bachmann would ever try to be. They were speaking to different audiences. Bachmann had the easier job of giving the Tea Party base the red meat it craves. Easy enough. Wave it in front them and they’ll probably come along.

Ryan had the more difficult job of speaking to the same base, but in a more coded manner that would reassure them, without alienating the Americans he was trying to reach by appealing to their fears and anxieties, without going into too much detail about what he and the GOP would do about either.

By giving a speech that didn’t raise the ire of one audience or the anxiety of the other, Paul Ryan may have successfully launched the next phase of his — and the GOP’s — ideological rehab. He may also have passed a big test as a salesman: getting his foot in the door without frightening the customer.

Paul Ryan was on his way to becoming the GOP’s pitchman when he became the telegenic "Young Gun," touted in the media as Republican Party’s idea man

Paul Ryan, meanwhile, has become a media darling, a process which culminated in his coronation, in no less than the New York Times, as a leading conservative thinker. That’s probably because the media has decided to "leave aside … the viability of the roadmap," Paul’s plan for America’s future. It’s a future that doesn’t include a balanced budget, but does include massive rationing of just about everything due to Draconian cuts in everything from Pell Grants to food stamps, eliminating Social Security and Medicare, tax increases for the middle class, and the largest tax cuts in history for the wealthy.

And he’s "the thinker"?

The GOP may have been uncomfortable with the political consequences of Ryan’s "Roadmap," but times have changed. With a majority in the House, the GOP is in the position of having to govern. That means they have to come up with a plan, or at least look like they have one, and then they have to convince Americans that it will work. That’s a challenge for a party that doesn’t have an economic plan to speak of, beyond turning back the clock as far they can and pretending that the financial sector meltdown and ensuing economic crisis never happened, no plan at all to provide more Americans with health coverage, or to address any number of challenges we’re facing right now.

It’s no coincidence that the guy who wrote the "Roadmap" is the guy who spoke for the Republican party last night. Putting Ryan in front of the camera to speak for the party after the president’s State of the Union address is both the GOP’s attempt at looking like they have a plan.

Ryan’s response to the State of the Union can be seen as part of the GOP’s attempt at rehabilitating Ryan, the "Roadmap," and conservative policies that won’t sit well with Americans if the consequences are spelled out. That’s why there was no "there" there, when Ryan spoke. There wasn’t supposed to be. That wasn’t the job Ryan was sent to do. He couldn’t lay out specifics, because if he did, he’d panic part of the audience he was sent out to reach, instead of allaying their fears and lulling them into believing that he (and his party) want what they want, and what most Americans want.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but American’s aren’t supposed to know that yet.

When Ryan was tapped to deliver the GOP response to the State of the Union, Ezra Klein asked "Did Republicans just take ownership of Ryan’s Roadmap?"

In a word, yes.

It took them long enough, but the GOP has finally come around. The choice of Ryan to deliver the response to the SOTU is clearly an embrace of an extreme. Michelle Bachmann’s independent response on behalf of the Tea Party was relegated to one network, and GOP officials were less than enthused about her getting any airtime at all. Paul Ryan seems a perfect choice. He couches his remarks in terms of spending cuts, but not the consequences. Ryan’s cuts would achieve the result of dismantling that which the Tea Party wants dismantled. But without a lot shouting or threats of violence.

Paul Ryan is the extremism of the Tea Party, dressed up and taught some manners. But, as Ezra points out, it’s a thin disguise, unlikely to fool many voters.

I doubt Paul Ryan will suffer much from being tapped to give the GOP’s response to the State of the Union: He’s an easy, affable speaker, and even if the format leaves him looking a little wooden, his control of the House budget process and odd role as the only House Republican who seems comfortable with numbers will give him plenty of opportunities to redeem himself going forward. The downside risk of giving a mediocre speech is overstated, at least in his case, while the upside risk of giving a good speech is pretty significant: He cements his position as the bright young thing of Washington’s Republican establishment.

But I think the GOP might end up suffering quite a lot: The more they elevate Ryan, the more they elevate Ryan’s Roadmap. And that document is a timebomb for them: It doesn’t just privatize Medicare, but it holds costs down by giving seniors checks that won’t keep up with the price of health care. It privatizes much of Social Security. It cuts taxes on the rich while raising them on many in the middle class.

The Republican Party, of course, hasn’t shrunk back from the Roadmap. They’ve left it mostly alone, while embracing its author. But if this is the fondest hope of the GOP’s smartest policy mind, they’re eventually going to have to answer for it. Particularly if they don’t come up with some policy ideas of their own that can take its place.

The GOP seems to be making the mistake of believing that voters have given them a mandate to go to Washington and tear everything down, dismantling as much of the government as they can. Nothing could be farther from the truth if you look at the polling leading up to the election. Americans don’t want less government, and they don’t want no government. They want government that works for them, instead of the highest bidders. Democrats didn’t do enough to create jobs and relieve the pain of an economic crisis that still isn’t’ getting better for most people beyond Wall Street and Washington’s beltway.

The choice of Ryan to deliver the GOP’s response to the state of the union suggests that if Democrats did too little, Republicans will do nothing at all to help Americans in the vice-like grip of this economic crisis.

Last night, President Obama said we must not balance the federal budget, "on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens," while the Republicans chose to be represented by the author of a "Roadmap" that does just that.

Toward the end of his speech, Paul Ryan reminded us that "Millions of families have fallen on hard times." That much is true, but the policies he and his fellow conservatives would put into place would only ensure more "hard times" for millions more Americans.

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