There’s a sinking sensation we’ve all felt — that moment when something that seemed simple becomes difficult; when confidence turns to uncertainty, then uncertainty turns to panic.
For Democratic operatives, demonizing Paul Ryan was supposed to be easy. Just throw around phrases like “Draconian cuts” and “budget slashing,” then cut an ad with him pushing an elderly woman off a cliff. (Yes, they did.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to this week’s convention. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan appeared together on stage after stage, speaking with substance and seriousness about spending, taxes, Medicare, and America’s fiscal mess — and they’re still standing. As of Wednesday, both Gallup and Rasmussen, the two major national tracking polls, showed the Republicans ahead by 2 points. Recent polls in the blue states of Wisconsin and Michigan put the Republicans within striking distance as well. That kind of stubbornness has begun to drive the left crazy.
At first, overconfidence flowed from what liberals perceived as a “target-rich environment.” Over the years, Paul Ryan has had the audacity to write real legislation to restore long-term stability to Social Security, balance the budget, and reform Medicare. You may not agree with him on every point, but let’s face it: These are issues where most politicians simply pay lip service — or duck altogether.
Democrats’ first line of attack was to scare retirees by claiming that Romney-Ryan would “end Medicare as we know it,” “cut benefits,” or even — gasp! — “voucherize” the system. This despite the fact the Romney would maintain the current Medicare system as an option for all future retirees.
The second step was to accuse Romney of endorsing every aspect of every bill that Ryan had ever written. This is ridiculous on its face. Romney has his own proposal on taxes; the two do agree on many aspects of Medicare reform, but Romney has suggested that Social Security reform be addressed through bipartisan negotiations, not Ryan’s bill.
Two weeks on, the two-pronged attack failed to put a dent in Romney’s poll numbers. That had Team Obama a bit jittery. And when historian Niall Ferguson wrote a Newsweek cover story last week titled “Hit the Road, Barack,” the frayed nerves erupted into full-throated panic.
Clearly, liberals were a bit stunned that an outlet as reliably left-wing as Newsweek had turned against them. Ferguson’s credibility as a historian, Harvard professor, and writer deepened the threat, especially because the failures for which he condemned Obama most harshly — four years of trillion-dollar deficits, an explosion of federal debt, and unchecked entitlement spending — are precisely the issues that Paul Ryan’s budget proposals have been willing to address.
By week’s end, the blogging left was promoting New York Times pundit Paul Krugman’s attempt to cut Ferguson down to size, while a Berkeley professor more or less demanded that Harvard “fire his ass.” Just imagine the uproar that would engulf Berkeley if a liberal professor were similarly condemned for criticizing George W. Bush.
Despite Krugman’s charge of “misrepresentation of the facts,” the fact remained that they are indeed facts: not just the trillion-dollar deficits, but falling household incomes and a system in which 46 percent of households pay no federal income tax.
The exchange is well worth reading in full, and while I certainly think that Ferguson gets the better of his critics on substance, what really drove the left crazy was this: “Ryan psychs Obama out” asserted Ferguson, because “unlike Obama, Ryan has a plan — as opposed to a narrative — for this country.”
Eighteen months ago, President Obama invited Paul Ryan to sit in the front row of a major budget address, and then took pains to insult the House Budget Chairman. Left-wing observers were only too happy to chuckle at Ryan’s expense, and wave off Obama’s boorish and immature behavior. Now, they’re in panic mode, because Romney and Ryan have plans and are more than happy to talk about them.
A political battle waged on the basis of “hope” and vague promises is one that Obama thinks he can win. But a campaign involving facts, policies, and plans? That’s something to be feared — and the firestorm unleashed by Ferguson only proves the point.
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.