So much for the “Paul Ryan for President” boomlet. After Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels announced on May 22 that he wouldn’t seek the Republican nomination for president, the political errand boys of Wall Street—former House majority leader Dick Armey, current majority leader Eric Cantor and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol—raced to talk up a prospective candidacy by the House Budget Committee chair. Who better? Ryan is handsome, articulate, an Ayn Rand fan and a man with a “plan” to balance the budget.

Unfortunately for GOP strategists who dreamed of surfing a “we’re broke” austerity message to victory in 2012, voters despise Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare. As well they should; it’s a mangled voucher scheme that steers money away from providing care for the elderly and toward the accounts of for-profit insurance giants. The more Americans get to know Ryan’s plan, the more they oppose it. Four out of five Americans tell pollsters they’re uncomfortable with the Congressman’s approach. Town hall meetings in April, especially in Ryan’s Wisconsin district, heard energetic defenses of the social safety net and calls for taxing the rich. Then in May Democrat Kathy Hochul, stuck in a hopeless special-election race in a “safe” Republican Congressional district in upstate New York, decided to run against not just her Republican opponent, Jane Corwin, but against Ryan as well.

Hochul’s campaign to “fight the Republican budget that aims to decimate Medicare and any Republican efforts to privatize Social Security” ditched the compromising talk of Beltway Democrats—who barely noticed her campaign at first—and went to the heart of the matter. She offered voters a choice between Ryan’s schemes and protection of “the guarantees we’ve made to our seniors over the last seventy-six years.” On May 24, the voters backed the second option. Despite being outspent overwhelmingly by the GOP and Karl Rove’s “independent” campaign apparatus, Hochul won with ease in a district that had chosen John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008 by six points and had rarely sent a Democrat to Congress.

On the morning after the election, Ryan was blaming the Democrats’ “MediScare” distortion and “demagoguery” for the most serious electoral setback his party has suffered since 2008. But his fellow Republicans were notably no longer pitching Ryan for president; some were running from him. But the retreat had begun even before New York’s special election. Even after presidential candidate Newt Gingrich took a beating from GOP thought police for daring to describe Ryan’s plan as “right-wing social engineering,” potentially vulnerable Republican senators like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts were abandoning the Ryan budget. “I am going to vote no on the budget because I have deep and abiding concerns about the approach on Medicare, which is essentially to privatize it,” Snowe said. When a senior Republican who faces re-election in 2012 dismisses the budget plan as a privatization scheme, it’s not Democratic demagoguery that Ryan and his compatriots should be worried about. It’s Republican realism.

Attacking the social safety net is bad politics, especially when the American people recognize that there are alternatives; poll after poll has shown that voters prefer to balance budgets by raising taxes on the wealthy and cutting Pentagon spending. And that is changing the 2012 electoral dynamic. House Republicans can’t erase their votes for Ryan’s plan, which creates an opening for Democrats, who hope to take back that chamber. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, abandoning talk of how Medicare might be “on the table” in debt-reduction talks, now says, “The three most important issues we should be talking about are Medicare, Medicare and Medicare.”

Pelosi gets part of the equation, but not all of it. This can and should be about more than Medicare. As Dan Cantor, executive director of New York’s Working Families Party, says, voters “were not willing to buy the Ryan/Boehner/Pawlenty/Romney/Whoever view that we don’t actually have any obligations to one another, that we are just islands unto ourselves.” WFP backed Hochul early and played a pivotal role in organizing union and grassroots support for her. Cantor argues that, instead of negotiating with Republicans, progressives should embrace a broader message that “all Americans deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Support for this argument comes not just from upstate New York but from Maine, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where, in the first three weeks of May, Democrats won special elections for legislative seats by positioning themselves as foes of Republican austerity budgets and antilabor initiatives. In New Hampshire and Wisconsin, solidly Republican state House seats flipped to the Democrats; in Maine, an evenly split state Senate district gave 68 percent of the vote to a candidate identified as the “most vocal state House opponent” of Governor Paul LePage’s reactionary economic and social agenda. The message is clear: voters aren’t buying what Paul Ryan and Republicans at all levels of government are selling. If Democrats refuse to go along with the cuts and corporate giveaways proposed by Republicans, if they propose the responsible alternatives of fair taxation and people-first budgeting, they can win just about anywhere.