GOP Doubles Down on Ryan to Change the Narrative

by Stuart Rothenberg March 15, 2013 · 9:47 AM EDT

In what can only be regarded as an interesting gamble, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan and House Republicans this week are proposing an economic agenda oddly similar to the one they have been offering for the past two years.

Among other things, the Ryan budget plan, which intends to balance the federal budget in 10 years, rolls back the health care legislation passed in 2010, transforms Medicare and creates just two personal income brackets, 
10 percent and 25 percent.

Whatever you think of the proposal as a policy document, Republicans are gambling that they will benefit from a comparison between the Ryan budget and a budget that Senate Democrats are offering. “The whole point of the Ryan budget is to have a fight with the Democrats,” one GOP strategist told me recently. “The alternative is the status quo, and we haven’t done very well with that.”

February’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found only 29 percent of respondents had a positive view of the Republican Party, while 46 percent said they had a negative view. The Democratic Party’s image (41 percent positive/36 percent negative) was much better. In the same survey, 22 percent of respondents said the GOP was emphasizing unifying the country, while 64 percent said it was emphasizing a partisan approach. Once again, Democrats had better numbers (37 percent unifying the country/49 percent emphasizing a partisan approach).

Democrats are absolutely giddy that they have yet another shot at the Ryan budget, figuring they can use the same weapons against the GOP that President Barack Obama and his party have used for years.

Regardless of whether you think the Democratic attacks are fair, the budget invites the party to criticize Republicans for wanting to “end Medicare as we know it” and to “cut taxes for millionaires.”

But Republican strategists I talked with don’t seem particularly worried about those attacks.

Two different Republicans made the same argument to me recently when they noted that Democratic attacks on Medicare didn’t prove effective in last year’s elections, so there was no need to worry about another round of the same attacks from the House and Senate campaign committees now.

While Medicare remains a net negative for Republicans in polling, party insiders note that 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won seniors in spite of the Democratic attacks. And while Democrats talked last cycle as if the Ryan budget would put the House into play, that never happened.

GOP insiders are ready and willing to take hits on Medicare and spending cuts if they can have a clear shot at a Democratic budget — a target they haven’t had for years. “We aren’t going to be fighting about the Ryan budget,” one Republican promised. “Our members must pivot away from it and talk exclusively about the Democratic budget. The next few months can’t be a referendum about our budget. It must be a choice between the two approaches.”

But some Republican insiders point out that “balance” and “balanced budgets” will also be a key part of the discussion.

Republicans believe that voters think that Democrats have a near-term plan to balance the budget, largely because Democratic members of Congress spend so much time talking about the need for a “balanced” approach. But when Democrats use the word “balance,” they aren’t referring to a “balanced budget” but to their plan to have both spending cuts (and entitlement changes) on one hand, and higher taxes on the other. When voters understand that, GOP operatives say, the entire political argument will change.

We’ll see who is right over the next few months, and whether Democrats focus on the Ryan budget’s proposed 25 percent top rate as a way of further demonizing Republicans as advocates for the wealthy.