In a speech at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) offered a recitation of his controversial, alternative vision for the country’s social safety net.
But despite the backlash Republicans have faced taken since they voted overwhelmingly in the spring to adopt his approach, Ryan says now’s the time for conservatives and GOP candidates to renew their support for that vision, not to walk away from it.
[W]e took a few dings at first, we survived,” Ryan admitted. “The Democrats’ tried the same old scare tactics for a few months, and in the first special election that took place after our budget passed, we learned a costly lesson. We learned that unless we back up our ideas with courage, and defend them in the face of attacks, we will lose. But once we learned that lesson and started to get our message out… well, a funny thing happened: People listened. They learned that our plan did not affect those in or near retirement; that it guaranteed coverage options like the ones members of Congress enjoy; and that choice and competition would drive costs down and quality up. They also learned more about the Democrats’ plans for Medicare, and they didn’t like what they heard.”
Ryan went on.
And the scare tactics stopped working.
Look at what just happened earlier this month in the recent special elections next door in Nevada and out in New York. The Democrats threw every scare tactic they could think of at the Republican candidates running in two special elections for vacant House seats. But the attacks failed to connect with voters hungry for solutions. The Republican candidates prevailed.
Now, certainly, there were some mitigating factors in these races. The economy is unquestionably at the forefront of the nation’s concerns, and the President’s unpopularity definitely played a role.
And in Brooklyn - the race to replace former-Congressman Anthony Weiner - well, I don’t want to get into all the factors that influenced that race. As Peter Robinson reminded me this morning before we taped his program, “If you want to talk about the New York race, just remember that this is a family show.”
But the point is that we should not fear false attacks again in 2012.
This is pretty bold advice given the evidence. True, the Democrats attack campaign of the spring and early summer has since taken a back seat to things like the Anthony Weiner scandal and partisan fights over the debt limit and jobs. But President Obama has pledged to make Ryan’s vision — and particularly his plan to phase out traditional Medicare and replace it with a subsidized private insurance system — a major focus of the election.
So Ryan’s budget will come back into political focus as the day-to-day on Capitol Hill recedes in the media and is replaced by the 2012 campaign. And as far as using special elections as a litmus test goes, as Ryan admits the record’s pretty mixed. Jane Corwin got creamed over her support for the plan, leading Kathy Hochul’s victory in upstate New York. And the GOP candidate who took Anthony Weiner’s old seat didn’t actually support it.
It’s a big gamble. But it underlines the GOP’s seriousness about fundamentally changing retirement policies for seniors and the poor in the months and years ahead. As Ryan himself noted, speaking of federal health care programs, “you have to revisit the structure of federal health policy and change the incentives - something that many leading Democrats, with their unwavering commitment to early 20th Century social insurance models, remain totally unwilling to do.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.