How will Republican support of House Chairman Paul Ryan's budget play in the 2012 elections? We got a sneak preview on Friday, when Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and likely GOP presidential candidate, took some questions while visiting New Hampshire.
After Pawlenty indicated that he supported Ryan's budget generally, Igor Volsky of Think Progress asked whether he supported the proposed Medicare cuts specifically.
The full exchange, which you can watch above, went like this:
PAWLENTY: I like Paul Ryan’s plan directionally. I don’t think it’s fully filled out in terms of the fact that we still have to address Social Security and when we issue our plan later in this process, it will have some differences. [...]
VOLSKY: Do you support the Medicare cuts in his plan that he keeps from Obamacare?
PAWLENTY: Anybody else have a question besides this guy?
Pawlenty never did answer the question. And you can understand why.
If you support the Ryan budget, that means you want (a) to take away health insurance from well more than 30 million people (b) to raise the Medicare eligibility age and transform the program into a voucher scheme, leaving millions of seniors struggling to pay their medical bills (c) to end the federal government's open-ended commitment to Medicaid, almost certainly forcing states to cut back on enrollment, benefits, or both (d) to enact massive new tax breaks for the wealthy. These are enormously unpopular positions--as well they should be, given the immense hardship they would cause and the many viable alternatives to balancing the budget.
But whether Republicans who support the Ryan budget pay a political price will depend, in large part, not on what took place Friday but what takes place in the coming weeks and months. Poll numbers won't mean a thing if opponents of the Ryan budget don't press the case.
The effort must begin at the White House. President Obama's speech last week was terrific, but one speech won't do the job. He and his advisors need to carry this message persistently over the next few weeks, in the media and, to whatever extent possible, in person. The president will be getting out of Washington this week, for town-hall style events. That's a good sign. But he needs to keep doing events like that--and, no less important, he needs to keep pressing his case even as formal budget negotiations begin. That kind of message discipline has not been a strength of this White House.
Liberal groups, meanwhile, need to organize their members into demonstrations. During 2009 and 2010, the right was adept at using the Affordable Care Act to galvanize supporters. They used it not only to raise money but also to raise a ruckus. In particular, they took advantage of congressional recesses--when members were back home, listening to constituents at public events--to make their views known and focus public attention on their concerns. You may have noticed that such a recess begins this week.
I sincerely hope liberals show more courtesy towards supporters of the Ryan budget than conservatives showed towards supporters of the Affordable Care Act, particularly during the awful late summer of 2009, when demonstrations frequently became uncivil and disruptive. But liberals need show up and make their thoughts heard, respectfully forcing Republicans who support the Ryan plan to explain themselves, just like Volsky did to Pawlenty on Friday. The future of the welfare state may depend upon it.