Star column: Obama at his weakest when Paul Ryan is in the news

by Ryan Streeter on August 16, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

In my Star column today, I look at the Paul Ryan selection from a slightly different angle than I’ve seen in the steady stream of commentary so far: how Ryan more than any Republican has made Obama look weak in the past.

I wrote it mainly because the enthusiasm I’ve seen among a number of Obama supporters about the Ryan pick seems incredibly misplaced. Obama was at his weakest while Ryan was in the national spotlight last year. If the Obama campaign and its surrogates want to use Ryan’s reform plans as a punching bag, I predict it will backfire, just as all those who said Ryan forcing entitlement reforms in the April 2011 budget would be a terrible idea. His work ended up shaping the domestic debate in the GOP primary, and forced Obama on multiple occasions to make public statements he didn’t want to make about the deficit.

Here’s the column:

Mitt Romney’s opponents, President Obama chief among them, are licking their chops over Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan, the author of the House Republicans’ budget proposal to reform Medicare and rein in the deficit, is a “target-rich” political figure, according to a few left-leaning commentators. His advocacy for changing Medicare is his fatal flaw.

A liberal group produced an ad last year showing Ryan pushing an elderly woman off a cliff, symbolizing what his changes to Medicare mean for older Americans. Expect to see reruns now that Ryan is on the ticket.

The confidence that Obama and his allies exude about Ryan may turn out to be self-defeating hubris, for two reasons.

The first is the facts about the Ryan reform plan itself. The Bipartisan Policy Center, which as its name suggests is not picking sides, described Ryan’s plan this way:

Seniors would be able to choose between traditional fee-for-service Medicare and various private health-care plans on a newly established, regulated Medicare Exchange. Beneficiaries who choose to enroll in a plan that is more expensive than the benchmark — even if that plan is fee for service — would be required to pay the incremental additional cost. A beneficiary who enrolls in the least-expensive approved plan would be rebated the full difference in cost from the benchmark.

So, seniors can choose whether to stay in Medicare as it is or opt into the new program. If they choose a more expensive plan, they pay the difference. If they choose a cheaper option, they get a rebate. That doesn’t sound like getting thrown off a cliff.

By shifting the debate back to the details of Ryan’s proposal, voters will begin to see this again. Obama has to rely on his usual talking points, super PAC television ads, and a left-leaning media to keep the misinformation alive. But talking about it invites more scrutiny of the facts. And the facts don’t serve Obama well, as the Bipartisan Policy Center’s analysis shows.

Even Obama supporters who look fairly at the facts have heralded Ryan’s plan. Former Bill Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, whom Obama appointed to co-lead his deficitĀ commission, has called the Ryan plan “sensible, honest, serious.”

Demagoguing Ryan’s “sensible, honest, serious” plan to reform Medicare in an effort to reduce America’s deficit will likely backfire. By intensifying theĀ  public’s focus on the deficit, Obama will suffer as we get closer to November. The deficit is not his strong suit, which brings us to the second point.

The second reason Obama supporters are misguided in their enthusiasm about Ryan is their short memory. No Republican has proved to be a bigger bur in Obama’s saddle than Paul Ryan. Maybe a history refresher is in order.

It all began at a White House health-care summit in early 2010, when Ryan publicly dismantled the fiscal logic of Obamacare in front of Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. The president was visibly upset. The performance became a YouTube sensation.

Then, after Obama seemingly rejected his own deficit commission’s sober, widely lauded recommendations by staying silent on the deficit in his 2011 State of the Union address, Ryan’s House budget in April 2011 dealt with the deficit head on. It proposed far-reaching plans to reform the tax code and redo Medicare. The public debate that followed focused so directly on the deficit that Obama responded with a deficit-reduction speech shortly thereafter.

The speech, described by some as “fiery,” resulted in nothing other than a new deficit group headed by Biden — which promptly achieved nothing. Obama limped through the summer of 2011 as Ryan’s ideas about deficit reduction remained a central theme of the GOP presidential primary. Weakened, Obama called Congress together for a jobs speech in September in an effort to change the subject, but the speech proved underwhelming. So he gave another deficit speech less than two weeks later that avoided serious commitments on Medicare and other entitlements. The same week, CBS reported Obama’s approval ratings had hit an all-time low.

The best thing that happened last year for Obama was to have Ryan retreat during the Republican presidential primary heated up. Now that Ryan’s back in the center ring, the Obama campaign should stop the high-fives and think twice about the threat Romney’s running mate poses.