How Town Hall Protests Against Paul Ryan's Plan Changed the Medicare Debate

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The Nation

How Town Hall Protests Against Paul Ryan's Plan Changed the Medicare Debate

Paul Ryan claims the protests heard so very loud and clear during the House Budget Committee chair’s town hall meetings in April had no influence on his thinking about Medicare.

Perhaps Ryan really does have a tin ear.

But the outcry over his plan to mess with Medicare, heard in Wisconsin communities from Milton to Kenosha, and at spring recess sessions in the districts of Republican freshmen from Pennsylvania to Florida, obviously influenced other Republicans.

Images from Kenosha – a historic factory town in Ryan's district, where hundreds of people showed up to criticize his scheming to cut benefits for working Americans while giving billionaires and multinational corporations new tax breaks – were featured nationally on broadcast network news shows.

Cable news programs focused intense attention on the story. MSNBC's Ed Schultz devoted much of a program last week to the outcry. (In addition to a blistering analysis of the congressman's proposal by the host, this writer provided some on the ground reporting from Kenosha, including details of a brief interview with Ryan, who was typically dismissive of the popular discomfort with his plan.) But other networks -- even Fox -- at least touched on the congressman's troubles.

The reporting was noticed in Washington where, last week, GOP leaders began almost immediately to distance themselves from Ryan’s plan to use Medicare funds to enrich the private insurance firms that have donated so generously to his campaigns.

The disarray among House and Senate Republicans is evident, as they send contradictory signals about how they will treat Medicare and Medicaid in negotiations around Ryan's budget plan. Even as they claim to still be sympathetic to the budget committee chair's plan, GOP leaders are retreating from it.

House Speaker John Boehner now describes the Ryan plan -- which was endorsed by his caucus in a House vote barely a month ago -- as just “one idea” among many.

The No. 2 Republican in the House, Eric Cantor, says he's looking for alternatives to Ryan's proposal.

House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp, D-Michigan, says he does not plan to hold hearings regarding Ryan's plan.

The operative term among Republicans now is that the budget committee chair's proposal is a “starting point" -- not a destination.

What does this tell us?

The town hall protests across the country shook the GOP.

And the particular protests in Ryan's Wisconsin district had a two-fold impact:

A. They pierced Ryan's image of invincibility. He had long peddled a claim that he could win with these ideas in working-class areas. That was called into question and GOP members from around the country noted it.

B. They made Medicare an issue in Wisconsin and nationally -- even New York where, in a special election for an open U.S. House seat, Democratic contender Kathy Hochul has surged after attacking Ryan’s plan. As the Buffalo News notes, "The Hochul campaign... has recognized the special dynamics of what looms on May 24 and employs an aide with experience in special elections. The campaign has recognized early on that the educated voters who will vote on Election Day know their issues, that they know the term “Ryan budget,” and they know that a major overhaul of Medicare as we know it is part of the deal that Corwin supports. It’s why issues matter in a special election. “I had no idea [at the campaign’s start] that the Ryan budget would be in play,” said (a) Democrat close to the campaign. “But it’s in play.”

What this all adds up to, whether Ryan wants to admit it or not, is the truth that a grassroots intervention by citizens in Wisconsin and states across the country appears to be changing the course of national policymaking.

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