Famous chronicler of presidential campaigns Ted White once described the snow in Wisconsin as representing a rudimentary form of economic justice. “Under the snow, it is impossible to tell the poor farm from the rich farm. . . . The snow gives a white uniformity to the landscape,” he wrote.
There is still snow on the ground in late April as Congressman Paul Ryan drives the roads of Wisconsin to pitch his own brand of economic justice. After unveiling his 2012 federal budget two weeks ago, the chairman of the House Budget Committee has returned to his district to conduct 19 town-hall-style meetings.
It is a welcome return home for Ryan, who has seen his “Path to Prosperity” plan endlessly demagogued in the nation’s capital. His bold budget, which gradually reduces America’s debt largely by reforming Medicare and Medicaid, was most recently skewered by President Obama, who described Ryan’s plan as “un-American.” Without naming Ryan, the president said the “Path to Prosperity” endangered kids with autism and Down’s syndrome in favor of “millionaires and billionaires.” Later, at a Democratic fundraiser, Obama said Ryan wasn’t “on the level,” criticizing his congressional voting record with a specificity usually reserved for high-school boys who’ve been stalking their ex-girlfriends on Facebook.
Ryan’s plan rolls federal spending back to 2008 levels and freezes it there for five years. For those under age 55, Ryan changes Medicare to a “premium support” system that allows beneficiaries to pick among a number of plans offered by private companies. He turns Medicaid into a block-grant program, sending a fixed amount of money to states and giving those states the flexibility to serve their citizens as they see fit. Failing to fix these deficit-driving programs, he says, “would rank among history’s most infamous episodes of political malpractice.”
He is taking this message to his district for the next two weeks. His staff says he enjoys doing town-hall events, as it allows him to “work out the kinks” in his PowerPoint presentation. He also expects better, more informed questions than the ones he gets from D.C. insiders.
As Ryan climbs into his car, he pulls out his iPad to check his e-mail. He has gotten a message from a gastroenterologist in his district who has vowed to give Ryan and his family free colonoscopies for life if he decides to run for president in 2012. “That seals it,” he deadpans.
His first obligation is to speak at a luncheon in Madison for the website Wispolitics.com. Madison is still teeming with protesters left over from Governor Walker’s fight with the public-sector unions, and many of them make their way to the sidewalk outside the Madison Club to protest Ryan’s speech. A young man on a microphone barks about Ryan’s budget returning America to the era of the “18th-century robber barons.” One scruffy young man tries to “rickroll” Ryan’s speech, barging in with a boombox playing Rick Astley’s execrable hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” at full blast.
At the luncheon, Ryan provides an hour-long extemporaneous description of his plan. The moderator, Jeff Mayers, asks Ryan if he’s going to run for president. “I feel like I can do a better job where I am right now, focused on these economic and budget issues,” Ryan answers. “And I can do it while being in D.C. for four days a week and Janesville three days a week, and that’s how I like my priorities,” he adds.
In the car on the way to his first listening session, Ryan multitasks while his chief of staff, Andy Speth, drives. Ryan throws on a ridiculous pair of futuristic sunglasses that can’t possibly have been bought for him — he looks like an extra from a Fast and Furious movie. On a staffer’s tiny BlackBerry screen, he reads the newly released Standard and Poor’s report downgrading U.S. debt from “stable” to “negative.”
From the passenger’s seat, Ryan holds court on a wildly disparate set of issues. He expresses his disappointment at the president’s speech criticizing the House Republican budget, and specifically bristles at being called un-American. “I just don’t think he knows what’s in the plan — I don’t think he’s been well-briefed,” he says. “I think [the president] is bigger than that speech,” he continues, pointing out that many of the provisions in the “Path for Prosperity” come from Obama’s own Fiscal Commission report. “I think that puts the president on the extreme left flank,” he says.
The president’s criticism, however, might actually be a positive sign. Woodrow Wilson once wrote that you should “never murder someone who is committing suicide,” and Obama evidently sees Ryan as worthy of political murder. That is, in Obama’s judgment, it may not be suicidal to reform entitlements.
Soon, Ryan is discussing a trip he took to his wife’s home in Oklahoma, where he took part in some traditional hand-fishing. “Noodling,” as it is called, involves sneaking up on a giant catfish, sticking your hand into the dark hole where it lives, and punching it in the face while wrestling it into submission with your bare hands. Ryan recalls catching a 40-pound catfish this way (the first fact of the day he didn’t back up with a chart from the Congressional Budget Office), but complained that the fish bit him halfway up the forearm.
Years ago, Ryan’s wedding announcement in the local paper mentioned he was a congressman who “does his own skinning and butchering and makes his own Polish sausage and bratwurst.” But in the over 500 town halls he has held over the past decade, he has tirelessly educated his constituents about the impending debt crisis. He has grown from “Paul, the scrawny congressman” to “Paul, the slightly less scrawny national fiscal rock star.”
As he walks into the packed community room at the North Prairie village hall, Ryan is greeted with a standing ovation from the 172 citizens in attendance. Many are made to stand in a hallway, where they can’t even see Ryan. He breezes through his PowerPoint presentation, which is replete with graphical demonstrations of the fiscal apocalypse. Many of the slides bring audible gasps from the audience, which comprises, overwhelmingly, senior citizens.
Most of the questions he answers are critical of his budget; later, he says that’s typical of town-hall meetings. Even if 95 percent of the room is on your side (as was the case in North Prairie), most of the questions you will get are from the skeptics. Ryan answers his challengers by referring back to slides in his presentation to demonstrate the crushing burden on the economy that the status quo represents.
At one point, a woman stands up and begins reading from a piece of paper. Voice quivering, hands shaking, and eyes fixed on her printed remarks, she implores Ryan to run for president in 2012, eliciting a loud ovation from the crowd. She says she understands his concern for his own kids, but notes that the lives of everyone else’s kids are at stake. Ryan doesn’t respond directly, except to point at her and jokingly say “that’s not my mother.” Then she calls Obama “the enemy of America,” drawing howls of protest from another woman sitting near the front.
In the car afterward, Ryan huddles with staffer Joyce Meyer to discuss ways to make the slideshow better. One questioner had challenged Ryan’s assertion that higher taxes slow down the economy. He’s certain he’s seen a chart that shows GDP slowing down as taxes increased, and wants to have that slide ready for future town halls.
On the drive to the next town hall in the Village of Mukwonago, Ryan collects his thoughts while listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do.” In these town halls, he has been test-driving a new, more populist line of argument with regard to business taxes. Ryan has pointed out how unfair the tax-deduction system is — decrying the fact that the top 1 percent of income earners use over 90 percent of deductions. When he cites the unfairness of General Electric’s making billions of dollars in profit and paying no taxes, his constituents, Republican and Democrat alike, all nod their head in agreement.
Ryan’s plan would eliminate most tax deductions while lowering the top individual and corporate tax brackets from 35 percent to 25 percent. Not only would lowering the rate make America more internationally competitive, he argues, but eliminating deductions would broaden the tax base and end the system of “crony capitalism” that favors some businesses over others.
Ryan gives this pitch for economic justice in front of about 100 constituents in Mukwonago. Again the room is at capacity, and the police have to send people home rather than risk a fire hazard. (Ryan’s office will conduct a telephone town hall for the residents who couldn’t get in.)
At the end of the presentation, following the mandatory citizen question about running for president (and subsequent applause), Ryan ducks out and heads to his car with a police escort. A young man who is sporting a lower-lip ring and representing the group One eludes the police and hands Ryan piece of paper and a white bracelet. “Say hi to Bono for me,” Ryan cracks. (The Irish musician is the organization’s spokesman.)
Before he can get in his car, Ryan is besieged by television cameras and holds an impromptu press conference. An elderly woman hangs back, waiting to give him what looks like a T-shirt she made for him. He ducks into the car while television cameras press up to the windshield, celebrity-paparazzi-style, filming him driving away. Ryan grants them a cautious wave.
Two town halls down, 17 to go.
Ryan’s budget plan will continue to be debated in congressional office buildings, at family barbeques, and on street corners. But if there is one weakness in the recent public rollout for the “Path to Prosperity,” it is that it is a singular document tied to a singular man — one with a preternatural ability to explain it. In order to sell Paul Ryan’s plan, you have to be Paul Ryan.
Thus, if the consequences for the nation are as dire as Ryan predicts, it may not be hyperbolic to say the weight of the world rests on his shoulders. Without his dogged determination, the desire within Congress to avert fiscal Armageddon simply wouldn’t exist. And if Ryan were to be caught in some kind of scandal, his plan would likely never cross the lips of another member of Congress.
But it is his willingness to be the nation’s fiscal whistleblower that has catapulted Ryan into the political stratosphere. He is now the nation’s foremost Obama nemesis — and although he’s eight years younger than the president, Ryan looks more and more like the adult in the relationship. In a presidential debate, Ryan would be the last candidate Obama would want to see walking across the stage to shake his hand.
Which is why Ryan’s constituents still think there’s a chance he’ll run for president. They believe that if the path the nation is on is as dire as he says it is, Ryan has an obligation to run. Allowing Obama to veto all his good ideas until 2016 belies the budgetary urgency Ryan has been pitching indefatigably since being made budget chairman.
And if he wins, he can invite Bono over to the White House and say hello himself.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.