The sales pitch isn’t the problem

For the first time in years, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R) is starting to feel some heat. The far-right Wisconsin lawmaker is accustomed to being treated as his party’s Golden Boy, but lately, his budget plan — most notably his vision for ending Medicare — has caused him no shortage of trouble. This includes Ryan seeing his own caucus’ leaders back away from his agenda.

But Ryan is confident he can get back on his feet, and intends to go on the offensive this week. It started this morning with a tired op-ed filled with far-right cliches, and will continue this afternoon, in a speech in Chicago filled with far-right cliches.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in text for luncheon speech of Chicago Economic Club: “Class warfare may be clever politics, but it is terrible economics. Redistributing wealth never creates more of it. Sowing social unrest and class envy makes America weaker, not stronger. Playing one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country — corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless.”

First, when the right complains about “class warfare,” it’s evidence of lazy thinkers who are feeling desperate. Second, if Ryan’s worried about class envy pitting groups against one another, he probably ought to re-read his own plan: “[T]he Ryan plan does impose huge sacrifice on the poor and the middle class, while cutting taxes on the rich and corporations.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that Ryan’s desperation is understandable. Ezra Klein had a good item this morning:

At this point, more prospective Republican presidential candidates have endorsed some form of an individual mandate — Romney in his state, Gingrich nationally — than have endorsed Ryan’s Medicare plan. In fact, Gingrich has come out against Ryan’s Medicare plan, calling it “right-wing social engineering.” John Boehner has walked back his support for it, saying he is “not wedded to one single idea.” Michele Bachmann says she’s “concerned about shifting the cost burden to senior citizens.” Ryan’s plan appears to have turned a special election in an extremely Republican district into a dead heat.

I’d just add that Ryan seems to be aware of all of this, but misunderstands the nature of the backlash. He sees the polls and his party moving away from him, but Ryan thinks he can put things right if he just starts explaining his plan a little better. That’s why he was booed by his own constituents, Ryan assumes. They just didn’t understand how great he and his plan really are.

I’m sure that’s a comforting assumption. Ryan assumes he’s a brilliant but misunderstood artist, and it’s the audience’s fault for not wanting to buy his masterpiece. Maybe if he just explains it to us one more time, we’ll all be really impressed.

Once in a while, politicians are more or less justified in thinking this way. During the fight over health care reform, polls showed Americans rejecting the Democratic plan, but strongly approving of the ideas within the plan. Large numbers of Americans had been convinced the reform agenda was awful, without knowing what it was they were against.

But this isn’t one of those cases, and Paul’s assumption that his issues are purely a matter of public relations is just wrong. His agenda is failing because it’s a callous, ridiculous approach, built on fraudulent data. All the speeches and op-eds in the world won’t change that.