It’s been a common refrain of politicians in Washington for as long as the capitol has been unpopular: “It’s good to get outside the Beltway, good to go get back to the real America.” But in recent days that cliché might feel a bit stale for Republican House members, who voted last month for Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. Inside the Beltway, Ryan is called “courageous,” a “visionary,” a “serious man,” for having the bravery to put forth a budget that pays for tax cuts for the wealthy by ending Medicare as we know it. Back home in his district, he’s becoming known as the leader of the most serious assault on seniors since President Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security.
In April, Ryan was greeted, not with the outsized praise of New York Times columnist David Brooks at his town hall in Milton, Wisconsin, but instead, with sustained boos. On Friday, according to Politico, he asked police to remove a man from his town hall because the man refused to stop yelling about the impact the Ryan budget would have on Medicare.
He’s not alone. In New Hampshire, the first six questions posed to Representative Charlie Bass (R-NH) were about his vote in favor of Ryan’s budget. “I’m not surprised it’s controversial,” said Bass of his vote. But for a man who won his seat during the 2010 Republican wave by a little more than 3,000 votes, it’s an open question as to whether his career can afford such controversy.
In addition to Ryan and Bass, at least six other GOPers have faced pointed questions and outright protest at town halls, reminiscent of the tea party anger seen at Democratic town halls in 2009. Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) arrived at his town hall greeted with signs that said “Hands Off Medicare.” The meeting became so contentious that police officers intervened to quiet the crowd. The New York Times described one such town hall as approaching “near chaos.” The Orlando Sentinel described another as reaching the level of “bedlam.”
Already, some members are backing away from their votes. By the end of Charlie Bass’s town hall, he already seemed to be wavering. “If there are certain facets of the budget that are manifestly unpopular, I think that should be taken into consideration.… this is the beginning of a long conversation.” How manifestly unpopular is Ryan’s plan for Medicare? A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that more than 80 percent of all Americans disapprove of cuts to the program. A whopping 70 percent of Republicans opposed them, as well, making it one of the most unpopular positions supported by a national party in modern memory.
Even Speaker Boehner himself ducked away from the budget. He told ABC News, “It’s Paul’s idea. Now other people have other ideas. I’m not wedded to one single idea.” Last week, Washington Post reporter Greg Sargent, writing about yet another town hall uproar, asked if we could “call this a national phenomenon yet?”
In the words of President Obama, yes, yes we can.
Democrats and progressive allies are already getting started, working to mobilize voters to attend future town hall meetings. A campaign called “Don’t Make Us Work ‘Til We Die” organized two days of action in thirty five cities across the country in April. MoveOn.org is encouraging its members to attend town halls, as well. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is planning a whistle stop “people’s agenda” tour in seventeen cities—as a follow up to their “People’s Budget.” Other groups are planning large mobilizations in August, to coincide with the month-long summer recess.
SEIU, for example, plans to organize massive nationwide protests around “national flash points,” including during August recess. “We felt like we were called in this moment to roll the dice and to think about how to use our members resources for the greatest hope for changing members lives,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry says. “I hope what people will see is more of what we all witnessed in Madison…more people in the streets making demands about what kind of America we want to see.”
As The Nation’s John Nichols reports, the goal of this campaign, called “Fight for A Fair Economy,” is to begin shifting the character of the national debate, from one defined by right-wing talking points and ginned up by tea party “populism” to one that reflects the aspirations of the poor and middle class.
And with the recent announcement that Harry Reid will hold a vote for the Ryan budget in the Senate, it’s clear that the issue of ending Medicare won’t just be the House’s albatross.
Democrats see a lot of short-term political opportunity here. Seniors have been the least receptive of any demographic group to President Obama and Democrats in Congress. Even a modest swing in their vote could upend the political landscape. Steve Israel, chairman of the DCCC, has said he believes the Ryan budget, which all but four Republicans voted for, will cost the Republicans control of the House come 2012. And it may remake the dynamic in the Senate, where conventional wisdom has suggested that Democrats are especially vulnerable to losing control of the chamber.
There’s no question that the issue allows progressives to draw clear distinctions between Republicans and themselves, and with such overwhelming opposition to the Ryan plan, it’s likely that the GOP will be on the defensive for months, if not years, to come.
But there is also a broader, and perhaps more important opportunity for progressives: the opportunity to reset the terms of the debate and make an aggressive case for what the president called “the basic social compact in America.” The 2009 town hall protests were characterized by misinformation. The now infamous protest sign that read “Take your government hands off my Medicare” was emblematic of a decades-long campaign to denigrate government, leaving the American people with a deeply false impression of its role in their lives.
Indeed, a 2010 study by Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler found that when Medicare beneficiaries were asked if they had ever benefited from a government social program, 40 percent said no. Forty-four percent of Social Security beneficiaries said the same thing, as did more than a quarter of food stamp users and 43 percent of unemployment insurance receivers.
But unlike the 2009 protests, the 2011 protests represent a genuine opportunity to cast government not as something to be “drowned in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist once described it, but instead, as a crucial lifeline, not just for the working class, but for every American. With Medicare as a shining example, this new national conversation has the potential to redefine government not as a guttural negative, but as a vital partner in American life.
Republicans have been caught flat-footed in this debate. What has been most astonishing thus far hasn’t been the national reaction to the budget, but Republicans’ surprise at it. They are apparently so disconnected from the lived experiences of most Americans that they genuinely believed ending Medicare would have broad appeal. Now they’re learning the hard way, and yearning for a swift return back to the warm embrace of Washington.