House Budget Commitee chairman Paul Ryan, the fiscal-policy pointman for the Republican Party, did not roll out his 2012 budget plan on the main streets of the factory towns and crossroads communities of southeastern Wisconson that he is supposed to represent.
Rather, Ryan made the announcement directly to his core constituency: the readers of the Wall Street Journal.
Describing the choice between his austerity budget—which would begin dismantling the social safety net in order to maintain tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans—and President Obama’s modest proposal for a more balanced approach as a definitional struggle in American politics, the congressman wrote: “It is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract. But that is where we are. And no two documents illustrate this choice of two futures better than the president’s budget and the one put forward by House Republicans.”
Ryan, a veteran of more than twenty years on Capitol Hill (as a Congressional aide and then a congressman), knows a good deal about economics, and a good deal about politics. And he is right when he suggests that his budget is forcing a choice.
But which choice?
Catholics United, the national Catholic social tradition advocacy organization, suggested Tuesday that another choice is playing out. Noting Ryan’s oft-expressed admiration for objectivist author Ayn Rand, the group declared: “Paul Ryan’s 2013 Budget Reflects the Teachings of Ayn Rand, Not Jesus Christ.”
“Ryan’s budget emulates Randian principles by decimating safety net programs and turning them into voucher-based systems, ostensibly ignoring the human dignity of the most vulnerable in society. Catholics United calls on Congressman Ryan to sincerely examine his conscience and recognize the devastating impact his Rand-inspired budget will have on the most vulnerable in society. The social Darwinist teachings of Ayn Rand have consistently been denounced by major Catholic leaders as antithetical to Catholic doctrine,” argued Catholics United, while the group’s executive director, James Salt, said: “This is not the time for political ideology to trump human dignity. The recently-released budget saddens me as it’s clear Congressman Ryan continues to follow the teachings of Ayn Rand, not Jesus Christ. For Catholics, there is no debate on this issue: the needs of the poor and vulnerable take preference over the needs of the wealthy and powerful—period. It’s puzzling and frustrating Congressman Ryan and so many self-proclaimed Catholics in Congress ignore this fundamental Catholic teaching.”
But the real referendum on Ryan’s budget plan is not likely to play out along the moral lines so well outlined by Catholics United.
Nor will it take the form of an honest debate with Obama—as Ryan remains, despite the pleadings of conservatives such as Bill Kristol, on the sidelines of the presidential race. (There’s a reason for this: polling suggests that 65 percent of Americans oppose Ryan’s approach to balancing the budget, and that the number rise to 84 percent when voters learn about the full economic impact on the next generation of seniors.)
The real referendum will play out in the neglected cities and towns of Ryan’s Wisconsin Congressional district.
There, Ryan’s Democratic opponent, Rob Zerban, is mounting the most determined challenge the congressman has seen since his initial election—after many years spent in Washington as a Congressional aide and think-tank acolyte—in 1998.
And Zerban is pulling no punches with regard to the Ryan budget.
“In yet another misguided handout to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street, Congressman Paul Ryan today introduced his latest budget plan, designed to place the blame for his fourteen years of poor decisions squarely on the backs of our hardworking families,” said Zerban, a successful businessman and local elected official in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Continuing to choose the millionaires who fund his campaigns instead of the people of Wisconsin to whom he swore an oath to represent, Paul Ryan has once again shown that his Washington political priorities are grossly out of touch with our Wisconsin values. From raising healthcare costs for our seniors by privatizing Medicare, to reducing Pell Grants and Stafford Loans for our students, Paul Ryan is single-handedly working to dismantle each and every program that people of all generations count on. Instead of a laser focus on creating jobs, he focused solely on removing safety nets for our most vulnerable populations.”
Ryan’s got most of the advantages in his race with Zerban. But if their contest becomes a real referendum on the congressman’s 2013 budget plan, the challenger’s got a real chance to stir things up. Because, while the Ryan plan may go over well on Wall Street, it’s going to be a tough sell on Main Street.
John Nichols’s new book on protests and politics is Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, just out from Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising.