Ryan budget offers Democrats a life raft for midterm messaging

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
Yahoo News
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House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., goes before the House Rules Committee for final work on his budget to fund the government in fiscal year 2015, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, April 7, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

For House Democrats, the immediate future appears bleak: The implementation of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul has done little to lift public opinion of the law, and independent analysts say with confidence that Republicans will remain in control of the lower chamber through 2016. Lately, Republicans are feeling so good about their chances this fall that they’ve even begun predicting a party takeover of the Senate.

But despondent Democrats see a glimmer of hope this week in the House Republican budget plan crafted by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, a document that slashes domestic spending on social programs so severely that Democrats plan to rally their base around it in hopes it will lead to smaller losses in November.

Ryan’s budget, his last before his term ends as head of the Budget Committee, would slash about $5 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, repeal the Affordable Care Act and reduce spending on domestic programs — including nutrition and education — to their lowest levels in relation to GDP in more than 60 years. The document promises to balance the federal budget by 2023 (with help from revenue gleaned from provisions in the Affordable Care Act it seeks to undo, curiously) and lower tax rates, even for the wealthy.

The Republican-led House is expected to vote and pass the resolution later this week. The vote in part is symbolic: The budget won’t be agreed to in the Senate or dictate how the Appropriations Committee doles out money. But it does offer lawmakers an opportunity to showcase their spending priorities. (Think of budgets as a wish list of what the parties would do if they could.)

“This is essentially a gift for Democrats,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin told Yahoo News.

Democrats have their own budget plan, which increases taxes by $1.5 trillion and spends more on infrastructure projects and other domestic programs. Party officials plan to use it as a contrast to the GOP blueprint.

“With respect to the differences between Republicans and Democrats on economic policy, I think they could not be more stark, and this budget debate is Exhibit A,” Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, ranking member on the House Budget Committee, said Tuesday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “Their budget will turn off a lot of people.”

To try to make sure that happens, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has launched a digital campaign to highlight the tax cuts for the rich in the budget and will launch a field effort around it that includes robo calls in 76 districts. "This will be the defining issue in the midterm elections," DCCC Chairman Rep. Steve Israel of New York, said at a press conference last month.

The challenge, however, is convincing voters that they should care about a plan that will never actually become law, an especially arduous burden on Democrats as Obama transitions to his final years in the White House. Republicans are amped at the prospect of retaking control of the Senate and are working to rally the base and core GOP voters by focusing obsessively on Obamacare and the possibility of controlling both chambers of Congress. Democrats seem to have resigned themselves to another two years in the House minority and must get reliable Democrats to the polls to rescue their Senate majority even as voter enthusiasm on their side remains lower.

Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to their party's success in House elections in 2010 and 2012, instances when Democrats also sought to use the Ryan budget as its primary messaging strategy.

“In 2012—with President Obama on the ballot—Steve Israel called Paul Ryan the Democrats’ ‘majority maker,’ yet his party didn’t even come close," Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Yahoo News.

Elements of Ryan’s budget offer Democrats an opportunity to mobilize the base, but the task is more difficult in a midterm election than it would be in a presidential year.

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“We need to do a better job of communicating to the American people what [the GOP budget] does to their kid’s education, what it does to our future,” Van Hollen said. “In a presidential election, when more of the country is paying attention, that debate happened and the president prevailed. What we need to do is make sure that the voters that were part of the coalition that helped elect the president are as motivated to come out in the midterm as in the general. We know that’s a challenge.”

In 2012, Democrats found it easy to make the contrast. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a millionaire former hedge fund manager who seemed incapable of talking about the poor without offending them provided a ripe target for Obama’s re-election machine. But with midterm elections spread over hundreds of districts throughout the country, that contrast is less visible.

In recent months Democrats have attempted to use businessmen Charles and David Koch, brothers who coordinate a multimillion-dollar donor network that funds Republican campaigns, as the face of conservative villainy. The effort may be useful for core voter fundraising, but it will be hard to base a campaign strategy against a pair of relatively obscure brothers from Kansas that few Americans would recognize.

“Their faces aren’t out there every day,” Van Hollen said while discussing the challenge of using the Koch brothers as a stand-in for Romney, whose image was on television every day during the campaign. “But I do think asking voters why these billionaires from outside your state are spending so much money to try and influence your vote, I think that can work in the state.”