Exposing the Ryan Budget

The jury’s still out as to whether the questions being raised by the Obama campaign and others about Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital is having (or will soon have) an impact on actual support levels for the two candidates. It is clear, however (and this is the angle I have been emphasizing in posts on the subject), that the toxification of Mitt’s background at Bain creates a serious strategic dilemma for his campaign, since it’s that background that has served as the centerpiece of his own case for becoming president. But of equal importance is the utility of the Bain association in setting up future attacks on the policy agenda that Romney embraced in order to secure the Republican nomination, but that he would prefer not to discuss. WaPo’s Greg Sargent explained that aspect of the Obama strategy last week via an interview with Priorities USA pollster Geoff Garin:

The goal is twofold: First, to undermine Romney’s principal case for the presidency, i.e., that his business background makes him a “job creator” who is equipped to turn around the country’s economy. And second, to define Romney in a way that makes it easier for voters to understand his true policy goals and priorities on entitlements, taxes, and other issues.

So another shoe is due to drop as the general election campaign intensifies. And because Romney’s “true policy goals and priorities on entitlements, taxes and other issues” are mostly encompassed in the Ryan Budget, I strongly recommend a careful reading of new public survey research from Democracy Corps that shows how the abstract symbol of “the Ryan Budget” (which doesn’t poll terribly well even as an abstraction) can be turned into a powerful indictment of the GOP agenda. Here’s a snippet from DCorps’ findings, based on polling of the Ryan Budget’s actual features and consequences:

The most recent survey and focus groups by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Democracy Corps reveal deep opposition to the Ryan budget- and its potential to damage Mitt Romney’s candidacy if he embraces it in the coming campaign. At the outset, the Ryan budget (described in Ryan’s actual language) barely garners majority support. And voters raise serious doubts when they hear about proposed cuts—particularly to Medicare, education, and children of the working poor.

President Obama’s lead against Romney more than doubles when the election is framed as a choice between the two candidates’ positions on the Ryan budget- particularly its impact on the most vulnerable. The President makes significant gains among key groups, including independents and voters in the Rising American Electorate (the unmarried women, youth, and minority voters who drove Obama to victory in 2008). This is an important new finding; highlighting the Ryan budget’s impact on the most vulnerable seriously weakens Romney.

DCorps’ analysis emphasizes the need to go after the Ryan Budget on moral terms that go beyond dry recitations of the impact on this or that government program or service and reach the priorities it represents.

Here’s a specific finding based on a focus group of swing voters in Ohio:

To be sure, voters make judgments about the budget based on what is good for the economy and best for themselves personally. But more importantly, above all else, these swing voters in Ohio drew clear lines based on what is “right” and “wrong.” These definitions are powerful and immovable; they have the capacity to turn voters sharply and steadfastly against the Ryan budget and against Mitt Romney for endorsing it.

Keep in mind that closely associating Mitt Romney with the Ryan budget is a task in which the Obama campaign will have an important ally: the conservative movement, which (a) strongly feels that enactment of the Ryan Budget (which includes by incorporation the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and restrictions on federal funding for services deemed “immoral” by social conservatives) is its most important post-election task, and (b) does not trust Romney to carry out his promise to support and sign the Ryan Budget post-haste, and will want to hear him say it repeatedly. Moreover, many conservatives will cooperate in Democratic efforts to describe the Ryan budget as a moral gesture reflecting national priorities and the ultimate direction of the country, not just a way to (sic!) reduce budget deficits, boost the economy, or “control” entitlement spending. As Paul Ryan himself has made clear, the massive cuts in federal safety net programs he proposes are intended not simply to reduce spending levels, but to reverse the damage that dependence on these programs has caused to the “moral fiber” of the poor.

The big picture of this election is a fateful choice between two very different visions of the country’s future–a choice the Romney campaign is engineered to disguise or avoid until after the votes are cast, based largely on the very accurate calculation that a straight referendum on current economic conditions with minimum attention paid to the consequences of a Republican victory provides Mitt the best chance of victory. Focusing on the Ryan Budget after demonstrating that it’s just about all Mitt Romney truly offers (give or take a war with Iran and a couple of right-wing Supreme Court nominations) is the best and perhaps the only path to make this the “choice” election it really ought to become.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.