Democrats Try to Ride Ryan’s Budget to Victory
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The Fiscal Times
April 3, 2014

The Democrats’ drive this year to try to somehow regain control of the House and hang onto the Senate is looking more and more like a case of  hope trumping political reality.

Party strategists are giddily celebrating the House Budget Committee’s approval on Wednesday of Chairman Paul Ryan’s latest balanced budget plan that they see as an endless source of material for attack ads against Republicans this fall.

Related: Ryan’s New Budget Cuts Just About Everything But Defense

The plan achieves deficit reduction entirely through $5.1 trillion of spending cuts over the coming decade, with nearly half of those cuts coming from the healthcare programs, including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and numerous social “safety-net” programs.

The Ryan plan caps the growth of Medicaid spending by turning it into a block grant to the states. He  proposes major reforms for Medicare, gradually turning it into a voucher-style system. The plan would reduce the top individual tax rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent and the top corporate rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, with much of the benefit going to wealthier Americans and the business community.

Even with all these cuts, the plan would count on a vague promise of new revenue from “economic growth to totally wipe out the deficit by 2024.

“Let me give you the three words that will define the next seven months: The Republican budget,” Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters on Wednesday. “Last October the Republicans shut down the federal government. Yesterday they released a budget that effectively shuts down America’s middle class.”

But Israel and other Democrats  had similar hopes back in 2012 when President Obama scored an impressive reelection victory yet they only picked up eight seats in the House. Now, in a mid-term campaign, they would need a net pickup of 17 seats to regain control of the House, and Republicans and political strategists say that’s just not going to happen. In fact, Democrats  may end up losing ground.

“I feel like I’m watching ‘Groundhog Day’ on a repeat, with some of these attacks on the Ryan budget that didn’t work during the last cycle and they’re not going to work again this cycle,”  Andrea Bozek, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said on Thursday. “You know, in  2012, Steve Israel called Paul Ryan ‘the Democrats’ majority maker,’ and yet they didn’t come close.”

Related: A New Tidal Wave of Money Could Decide Senate Races

University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” political analysis released today projects that the GOP is likely to add about five to eight House seats this fall, and could score a net gain of four to eight seats in the Senate – just enough to regain a majority there.  Republicans currently hold a 233-to-200 seat majority in the House, with two vacancies, while Democrats have a 55 to 45 seat advantage in the Senate.

“With seven months to go, it’s possible but unlikely that Democrats could gain a few seats—but nowhere near enough to switch control of the House,” Sabato told The Fiscal Times. “There’s at least as great a chance that Republicans could reach double-digit gains in the House.”

So any pickups may look good to the Democrats -- especially in the face of the president’s lowly approval ratings and historical trends that work against the party in control of the White House. The announcement this week that more than 7 million people enrolled for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act after a terrible startup provided a major boost to Democrats who think the political tide might be turning in favor of Obama’s signature health care law.

Republican leaders, on the other hand, are convinced that their relentless attacks on Obamacare is a winning strategy this fall, and that many Americans remain bitter that Obama misled them into thinking they could retain their old health insurance policies and their doctors if they want.

Related: Ryan Forges Ahead with Balanced Budget Plan

There was some doubt for a while that Ryan, the former GOP vice presidential nominee from Wisconsin, would press for passage of another tough budget blue print this year and potentially hand the Democrats some political ammunition in a tough election year.  But Ryan argued that his party shouldn’t be content with the status quo.

“This budget lays out a long-term vision for the country,” Ryan said Wednesday during a markup of his plan by the GOP-controlled Budget Committee. “It will grow the economy and create jobs. It will strengthen key priorities like national security and Medicare. It will restore fairness by rooting out cronyism. And it will stop spending money we don’t have. It is absolutely critical that we tackle these challenges, and tonight, we took a step in the right direction.”

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Obama, Israel and other Democrats already have begun road testing campaign themes, with particular emphasis of contrasting their efforts to help the middle class with Republican  proposals for slashing spending for entitlement and social programs and helping big business and wealthy Americans by cutting tax rates.

During a visit to Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday, Obama dismissed Ryan’s new balanced budget plan as a “stinkburger” while promoting his proposals for raising the minimum wage.

In a speech to a crowd of 1,400 at the University of Michigan, the president said the Republicans will have to make clear whether they support paying the lowest-earning workers more money. “You’ve got a choice,” he said. “You can give America the shaft, or you can give it a raise.

Israel echoed some of those themes yesterday during a  morning session with reporters at the National Press Club where he announced  a new initiative called “Battleground Middle Class,” to hold incumbent Republicans accountable for the Ryan budget proposals.

“The defining issue in these mid-term elections is, ‘Who’s got your back?” he said. “With this budget, Republicans are turning their backs on the middle class and stacking the deck for special interests  . . .  and forces the middle class to pay the price and do with less.”

“They rang the bell,” he added. “We’re coming out swinging.

Israel said that the Democrats are targeting 76 Republican-held districts across the country with telephone robo calls, a major on-line ad campaign, and deployment of paid field staff in 33 district to highlight the cuts contained in the Ryan budget plan. Many of those districts are swing suburban and exurban middle-class areas where the Democratic message will resonate.

Those targeted districts include a Northern Virginia seat held by retiring Republican Frank Wolf, a New Jersey seat held by retiring Rep. Jon Runyan, and the Iowa seat of retiring Rep. Tom Latham, as well as   seats that will be defended by incumbents, such as  Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, Rep. David Valadao of Central Valley of California, Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg, Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada, and Rep. Tom Reed of New York.  All in all, the Democrats have fielded challengers in 53 Republican-held districts – including 18 districts that President Obama carried in 2012.

Bozek disagreed that all those seats were in jeopardy and insisted that “we will be in an opportunity where we can grow our majority come November.”  She said that the Democrats’ renewed attacks on Ryan are a “desperate attempt” to distract attentions from the shortcomings and adverse effects of the Affordable Care Act, “which is going to be the main issue in this election cycle.”

“The House playing field is a lot smaller than it was,” she said. “Most political pundits are not seeing a huge wave like we saw in 2010 in terms of the House. There aren’t as many competitive races as there were before. So what that means is that there will be more money devoted to fewer races.”

“Let me stipulate, it’s a tough climate for us right now,” Israel concluded. “But I believe that this Republican budget helps change the narrative by reminding voters who’s got their back.”

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.