Paul Ryan Breaks the Rules

Cardinal Rule: A fundamental rule, upon which other matters hinge. Wiktionary

If you’re engaged in any type of activity that involves the development and implementation of a strategic plan you run into them all the time: Cardinal Rules.  Know them, abide by them, and your strategy may well succeed.  Ignore or violate them, and your plan will almost certainly crash and burn.  In football, for instance, avoiding turnovers is a cardinal rule. In warfare the rules warn against being outflanked by the enemy and outrunning supply lines.  Those of us who plan and execute political campaigns live by this one: “Don’t write the other guy’s commercial.”

Apparently GOP Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the architect of a plan that will supposedly reduce the federal budget deficit by six trillion dollars over the next ten years, missed that page in the political strategists’ handbook.  And Democrats everywhere, essentially messageless since November of 2008, are rejoicing, because in calling for the privatization of Medicare the Chair of the House Budget Committee didn’t give them fodder for one ad, he handed them enough material to make a couple thousand.

Speculation abounds as to why Mr. Ryan, a savvy politician who played a key role in the Republican takeover of the U.S. House, proposed a policy sure to raise hackles and howls among seniors and those who soon will be.  Conservative pundits and commentators explain it by saying he’s courageous and laud the plan as bold and groundbreaking.  Liberals question his sanity.

I just think he’s cocky.  He’s obviously certain his party will do a better job of framing the many issues his flawed plan raises and will be able to control the debate over it.  Clearly he doesn’t fear the Democrats at all.

Why should he? President Obama and the party’s Congressional leadership have proven repeatedly that they are incapable of communicating a coherent message to the American people.  Indeed, the mere fact that the Democrats have allowed deficit reduction to become the primary topic of discussion in Washington proves how incredibly inept they are.  At a time when the White House should be attempting to reduce the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate and speed up the glacier-paced economic recovery by creating a new stimulus plan, Mr. Obama is instead trying to outbid Ryan and his Republican cohorts in a game of deficit reduction poker.

As a result, things that would help reduce the jobless rate and improve prospects for the working class, like spending on infrastructure, enhanced job training, and more support for higher education are off the table, because both parties are now obsessed with the national debt rather than the mounting debt middl- class families are accumulating as they watch the value of their homes and their real wages fall and the cost of gas, college, and other staples rise.

And while Mr. Ryan’s plan is, as former Reagan budget director David Stockman says, nonsensical and counterproductive to the nation’s long-term best interests, he at least gets credit for being a true believer.  He and his supporters in the Tea Party movement really do believe that the deficit is more problematic than unemployment and the erosion of the American Dream.  They are sincere when they say that slashing tax rates for the wealthy, cutting health care benefits for the poor and the elderly, and turning Medicare over to the insurance industry is the formula for a brighter future.  Sincere, but goofy.

President Obama and the Democrats, on the other hand, have climbed on the deficit reduction bandwagon because they’re once again following the polls rather than their principles.  It’s a disheartening replay of the strategy that eventually undermined the drive for health care reform and set the stage for the 2010 electoral debacle.

In that instance, as many of you will remember, the White House proscribed any talk of a Canadian-style single payer system then ditched the concept of a public option in order to secure passage of a watered down insurance reform bill that’s been an albatross around Democrats’ necks since it was signed.  Not only did the process alienate and disappoint the Party’s base, it provided lots of material for demagogues like Sarah Palin who began ranting about “death panels,” as well as Tea Party adherents who demanded that government keep its hands off their Medicare benefits.  In short, Mr. Obama broke the cardinal rule and wrote the ads that fueled the GOP’s success last year.

Although Mr. Ryan has returned the favor by proposing that Medicare be converted from a government-managed (yes, Tea Partiers, the government has its hands all over your Medicare benefits) entitlement program that provides adequate health care benefits for the elderly to a cash cow for the insurance industry, there’s no guarantee the Democrats have the ability, will, or resources to exploit the gift they’ve been handed.

To do so they must launch an all-out assault on the Republican Medicare boondoggle and sustain it through next year’s election.  The messaging is simple enough—they can start by stealing Sarah Palin’s death panel line, because that’s what the insurance giants will become the minute they’re given the power to make life and death decisions about grandma and grandpa’s medical care.  It will be an incredibly effective attack—if they decide to make it.

On the other side, the GOP, flush with money and, as I’ve noted earlier, cocky as hell, is already running ads in key Congressional districts, including the Ohio Sixth, claiming that Ryan’s plan will save and strengthen Medicare.  The fact that this is an outright lie doesn’t matter, because, as we in the advertising industry know, say anything loudly enough, often enough, and cleverly enough and lots of people will believe it.

It’s a cardinal rule.

Leo Jennings

Jennings is a political consultant who has worked with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters