Did you hear the news? Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, the architect of the House Republicans' budget, was booed! By his own constituents!
The video of said town hall booing was clipped by the liberal blog ThinkProgress, zipped around the Internet, and then moved up the conveyor belt to CNN, MSNBC, NPR, NBC's Nightly News, Comedy Central's The Daily Show, and other media outlets.
And so the "budget backlash" narrative began.
"Chairman Ryan, the people, including your constituents, are talking,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said in response to the video. “Are you listening?" (Yes, this is the same Nancy Pelosi who dismissed the opposition to the national health care bill at the 2009 town hall meetings as “astroturf” or “un-American” citizens who were “carrying Swastikas.”)
The only problem with the backlash narrative is that it is wildly misleading. Despite efforts by labor unions and a variety of liberal activist organizations—One Wisconsin Now, MoveOn.org, Citizens Action of Wisconsin, Community for Change, etc.—to pack Ryan’s events with detractors and hecklers, they were overwhelmingly outnumbered by his supporters.
At the 19 town hall meetings held over the course of two weeks, Ryan was praised much more frequently than he was heckled by attendees. Judging from applause versus boos this week, I didn't witness a single event where Ryan had less than two-thirds of the crowd supporting him. Some constituents thanked Ryan for his "moral courage." Others offered more effusive praise. "I want to thank you for having the cojones—and not the other word, which I hope you all know what it is—for standing up for us, the whole United States,” a small business owner named Maria told Ryan in Lake Geneva on April 26. “I love you. As a surrogate mother."
His opponents were able muster up a crowd of 50 to 75 people to protest his event in Kenosha later that day—a vast sea of rage compared to the 3 protesters who showed up in Franklin on Thursday or the lone man holding a “TAX THE TOP” sign outside of the Oak Creek town hall.
One man protesting in Kenosha, who identified himself only as a Teamsters member ("I don't have a name," he told me), tried to pick a fight with a Ryan supporter and then a police officer outside the event. At times, he stood directly in front of Ryan’s car door as the meeting was about to conclude.
"I will go to jail for you, man," the Teamsters member said as he got in the face of a Ryan supporter.
"Officer, arrest this man," he then told a police officer. "He's inciting a riot," he continued before calling the Ryan supporter a “Nazi.”
He succeeded in forcing Ryan to leave with a police escort out of another exit.
"Chickenshit!" yelled Ned Harper, president of the local SEIU chapter, upon hearing the news that his Teamsters buddy had forced Ryan to leave out of a back door.
This story, too, fed into the backlash narrative. The Hill's Jordan Fabian reported simply that Ryan had to leave a town hall meeting "under police escort due to security concerns about a demonstration outside the building where the event was held." No mention that the "demonstration" was comprised of a few dozen people or that a lone thuggish Teamsters member was the big cause for concern (here's the video). Politico's Jennifer Haberkorn and Diane Webber left out that context as well.
(To their credit, Dinesh Ramded of the Associated Press and Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times tried to put the booing and heckling in proper context of the broader support Ryan received in his district.)
On April 28, Ryan faced one of the more hostile crowds of the week in the city of Greenfield, just outside of Milwaukee. About 600 people packed into a high school auditorium, and hecklers tried to interrupt him every five to ten minutes. Toward the end of the Q&A session, a woman began her question by thanking Ryan for producing his budget. Then the previously silent super-majority in the crowd began to applaud and rose to their feet.
Ryan received another standing ovation in Racine on Friday, but that detail was left out of Politico's story. "Rep. Paul Ryan had local police remove a man from his town hall meeting Friday after he kept yelling about how Ryan’s budget plan would impact Medicare," Politico reported from Racine. "It was the most dramatic moment yet in Ryan’s weeklong series of town halls, and it happened in one of the most Democratic areas of his district."
Well, that's a matter of opinion.
Was one man being escorted from a town hall meeting the "most dramatic moment" of the week? Or was it more dramatic when hundreds of senior citizens gave not one but two standing ovations to a politician proposing a bold Medicare reform? Again, it's a matter of opinion. But the latter moment is a far more accurate depiction of what Ryan actually faced in his swing district these last two weeks.
The reason why Ryan won the recess isn't just because more supporters than opponents showed up to town hall meetings. The fact that Ryan was both cheered and jeered at is about as newsworthy as a story titled: "BREAKING: Democrats, Republicans Live in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District, Show Up to Political Events."
While having more energy on one's side is an important factor in politics, it isn't always the key to victory. Ron Paul supporters can win a straw poll, but can't win an election. The angry protests in Madison this February and March were met with defeat at the ballot box in April's Wisconsin supreme court race.
The reason it's fair to say Ryan won the recess is because he is winning the argument. He went through 19 hours of town hall meetings, was asked more than 200 questions by constituents, and he came out unscathed. Though the crowds were mostly supportive, the questioners were usually opposed. Every Paul Krugman or Barack Obama talking point was thrown at him. Liberals and Democrats asked Ryan probing questions about Medicare (quoting Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin at times) and tax cuts.
Despite having a Democratic party tracker and Center for American Progress Action Fund blogger covering Ryan's town halls, all they have out of 19 hours of footage are a few clips of Ryan getting booed. They have a video of a constituent yelling "liar!" at Ryan. What they do not have is video of Ryan actually lying or getting stumped by a question. Liberals might not agree with him, but Ryan had a persuasive answer, filled with facts and figures, to every question he was asked.
Take, for example, the video clip that showed Ryan getting booed for saying "we do tax the top." He typically goes on to argue that a 35% corporate tax hurts small businesses who have to compete with foreign competitors with much lower tax rates, while some big corporations like GE pay no taxes at all because of loopholes, tax shelters, and deductions. The solution, Ryan says, is clean out "the junk" in the tax code, and then "lower tax rates for everybody" while keeping tax revenues where they are today. A similar idea was endorsed by President Obama's fiscal commission, and the Ways and Means committee will hammer out the details of which deductions they want to nix or reduce this summer.
Ryan's town halls were filled mostly with seniors, but there was actually little concern about his Medicare reform (Ryan's opponents preferred to argue about Bush tax cuts and corporate tax cuts).
“When seniors understand that what we’re doing is preserving Medicare exactly as it is today for people on Medicare or those 10 years away for retiring, then their minds are at ease,” Ryan told reporters on April 26. “So the challenge is—and this is the challenge you have every time you want to govern—is get through the misinformation.”
Ryan tries to cut through that misinformation with a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation at the beginning of each town hall meeting.
Wielding a laser pointer, Ryan lays out the federal budget, our deficit, and how entitlement programs, plus interest, are on track to consume all federal revenue in over a decade.
There are occasionally audible gasps in the crowd when the he clicks the slide that shows the gusher of red ink that consumes the budget on our current path. He then shows the GOP budget proposal to gradually eliminate the deficit and the debt. “It’s just like a mortgage,” Ryan says. “The alternative is we have a debt crisis. The alternative is everybody gets hurt.”
The final slide compares how he and President Obama would change Medicare. It's not a debate about whether or not to reform Medicare but how. Ryan asks everyone 55 and older to raise their hands (most do). He then tells them that nothing changes under Medicare for them. Ryan describes the plan to reform Medicare for the under-54 set by subsidizing their premiums and letting them pick among a variety of plans regulated by Medicare. The Medicare prescription drug benefit came in 41 percent below Congressional Budget Office predictions because seniors get to pick among competing plans, Ryan says.
On the other hand, President Obama “puts this new board in charge of Medicare,” says Ryan, “15 people he appoints and then they decide how Medicare prices work. They decide how to cut costs in Medicare.… We believe it will lead to diminished quality of care for current seniors.”
During the 45-minute question and answer session, Ryan will get one or maybe two questions about how Medicare reform would work for younger workers. “The status quo is the greatest threat to Medicare,” Ryan says. He explains that the program is means-tested so “those with less get more and those with more get less,” and it’s risk-adjusted so that the subsidy will grow to stabilize rates for those who get sick.
Ryan is well aware that the debate over his proposed budget has just begun, but it seems that Ryan and the Republicans have the edge so far nationwide.
It’s not just that widespread backlash failed to materialize across the country during the congressional recess that followed the nearly unanimous House Republican for Ryan’s budget. Polls suggest that the Democratic attack ads claiming that Republicans voted to “end” or “abolish” Medicare haven't worked. Gallup reports that 43 percent of Americans support Ryan’s budget, while 44 percent support Obama’s proposal. “If these numbers hold, this is good news for the Republicans,” wrote the New York Times’s liberal polling analyst Nate Silver. “But Republicans ought to be careful about declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’. What polls like Gallup’s seem to reflect is the overall partisan split in the country.”
Polling specifically on Ryan’s Medicare reform varies wildly—ranging from a small plurality supporting to the vast majority opposing—depending on the how the question is worded. A New York Times/CBS poll found that Americans support Ryan's plan 47% to 41%. It did not specify that the reform only affects those 54 and younger. A Washington Post poll found that 65% of Americans oppose changing Medicare "so that people over 65 would receive a check or voucher from the government each year for a fixed amount they can use to shop for their own private health insurance policy [emphasis added]." In other words, the Post poll misrepresented Ryan's plan.
Many in the media are doing their part to perpetuate the misinformation. On April 26, I woke up to the local Fox News TV affiliate reporting that Ryan’s plan would “minimize” Medicare, with no mention that the change only affects those under 55. The AP reporter traveling with Ryan wrote in his first dispatch of the day that Ryan’s budget would “fundamentally restructure” Medicare “for the elderly.” (Yes, that's the same AP reporter credited above. Nobody's perfect!)
Ryan’s constituents pressed him on a wide range of complex topics. He never talked down to them. When asked about foreign oil financing terrorists overseas, Ryan recommended Robert Lacey’s Inside the Kingdom and Dore Gold’s Hatred’s Kingdom.
Sometimes Ryan sounded like a young economics professor conducting a seminar. “Our fiscal policy is messing up our monetary policy," he said when asked at Thursday's Paddock Lake town hall about the decline of the dollar. "So what is fiscal policy? Fiscal policy is government’s taxing and spending. Monetary policy is what the Federal Reserve does—how we manage our currency, how we print out money.”
“Have you ever heard of quantitative easing?” Ryan asked. “The Federal Reserve is printing money to pay for our debt.”
“It’s setting up an inflation problem… What does that mean to you? That means you lose the purchasing power in your dollar.”
Of course, it’s the students who are grading the professor in this case. And he gets high marks.
Ryan is proof that politics is not an entirely deterministic enterprise. "It's the economy, stupid!" Yes, structural factors matter. But candidates matter, too. Rational argument and moral suasion matter. There's a reason why Ryan won 68% of the vote in 2010 and 64% of the vote in 2008, when John McCain only garnered 47.5% of the vote in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District.
Of course, not everyone has had such an easy time defending the budget as its author does. Check out this video: Arkansas congressman Rick Crawford was so flummoxed by a question about the budget's proposal to lower the top tax rate from 35% to 25% that he ended the meeting.
“There’s only one Paul Ryan,” one Republican congressman told National Review’s Andrew Stiles on background earlier this week. “And it’s not that the budget isn’t a great plan, but there’s just so much in there that a lot of us haven’t been able to digest to the point where we can defend it as eloquently as he does.”
If Ryan can defend the Ryan plan better than anyone else, shouldn’t he be the one to debate the president about it in 2012? Shouldn't he consider running for president if no viable candidate emerges to champion real Medicare reform?
"I’m not even going there," Ryan told me on Wednesday. "I’m not even going there with my mind or my discussions.… I have no doubt somebody who’s running for president sees the true nature of our fiscal condition, they’ll come to the similar conclusions about how best to fix [Medicare], if they’re a conservative."
John McCormack is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.