KENOSHA, WI -- Paul Ryan, the smooth-if-not-always-substantive congressman, is the darling of the D.C. talk shows. The House Budget Committee chair, chosen by GOP House leaders to respond to President Obama's State of the Union Address, is the prime pitchman for the Wall Street lobbying agenda on everything from privatization of Social Security to tax cuts for the rich. During Congress' spring break, he took his show on the road.
Ryan, R-Janesville, may have thought that his carefully crafted sales pitch for pulverizing Medicare would play perfectly in Paddock Lake and Milton and Kenosha -- Wisconsin towns where the congressman expected to be greeted with cheers for a conquering hero from inside the Beltway.
As it happens, hundreds of Ryan's constituents were turned away from the town hall meetings, which were packed to capacity long before their starting time. But the crowds that did get in to the sessions did not exactly come to hail their congressman as an American idol.
Outside the cloistered confines of Capitol Hill and the few blocks of southern Manhattan where he is a hero, the congressman had a hard time peddling his fiscal snake oil.
And in Kenosha, Ryan bombed.
When he claimed that he was serious about balancing the budget, someone in the crowd shouted: "That's not what the Congressional Budget Office says." And the room erupted with cheers for the correction of the congressman's attempted deception.
When Ryan claimed his Republican budget plan would save Medicare and Medicaid, the packed room erupted with shouts of "Liar!"
When Ryan claimed that he didn't want to replace Medicare with a voucher system but rather with "choices," a woman piped up: "You can call it what you want, but don't tell us that it's still Medicare."
When Ryan claimed that taxes needed to be cut for corporations and the wealthy in order to create jobs, he was greeted with a collective groan from hundreds of workers in a town that recently lost a major auto factory. One man yelled: "We've been cutting their taxes for 30 years and what did it get us? Outsourcing and layoff notices."
When Ryan claimed he couldn't impose serious cuts on Pentagon spending because troops were in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crowd started chanting: "Bring them home!"
The congressman was spinning out what were supposed to be sure-fire applause lines. But they fell flat.
Like a rock star who used to "have it" but can no longer get his groove on, the congressman kept looking for a trick, some gimmick, some ploy that would work. Think "Spinal Tap," the "mockumentary" where an over-the-hill British band tries one comeback stunt after another until, finally, the guitarist announces that he is going to rock harder by turning his amplifier volume "up to 11," and you've got the picture.
Ryan pulled out the audiovisual aids -- flashing charts from his friends at the Heritage Foundation on a big screen -- until people in the crowd shouted to him that they did not come for a picture show. He tried partisanship, suggesting that President Obama wasn't taking budget issues seriously. He tried pandering, pointing to crews from national television networks and saying: "Let's show them that Wisconsinites can be cordial to one another."
At that point, the woman sitting next to me, Susan Sheldon of Burlington, leaned over and said: "Let's show them that Wisconsinites won't be lied to."
So it went for Paul Ryan, the salesman for the Republican plan that may be selling in Washington -- at least to Republicans -- but is earning a thumbs down from his constituents in Wisconsin. Likewise, voters in other states have also been rejecting the plan at increasingly contentious town hall meetings of Republican members of Congress.
It may be true that congressmen can fool some of the people some of the time. But, for Ryan, the further he gets from Washington -- where he has spent almost half his life as a congressional aide, conservative "think tank" staffer and member of the House -- the harder it has been for the budget committee chairman to find buyers for his schemes. Not only does he want to restructure Medicare and Medicaid in order to shift money away from patient care and into the coffers of insurance companies, he also wants to gamble the retirement security of Americans with his campaign donors on Wall Street and to give more tax cuts to the rich, more tax breaks to the corporations, and more goodies to the bankers he served when he led the charge to get GOP votes for the 2008 bailout.
After the Kenosha session, I asked Ryan whether the overwhelming opposition might cause him to rethink his proposal. "No," he said, "it's what I expected in Kenosha."
Kenosha, he explained, is "a Democratic town."
But Ryan faced tough questions and criticism at most of the stops on what has been billed as a "listening tour."
The reception wasn't always as rough as in Kenosha. But even in traditionally Republican communities, people were packing Ryan's sessions and demanding answers. And they were groaning and grumbling when he failed to provide them.
The truth is that Ryan was not listening on his "listening tour." He was trying to peddle a product that polls suggest four out of five Americans don't want.
In his home district, at several of the stops for his "listening tour," it sounded like that opposition figure might be a good deal higher than 80 percent.
Ryan's Kenosha session started with a lengthy filibuster by the congressman. But when he finally started taking questions, the first one came from a white-haired woman who said: "We are supposed to give up our insurance (Medicare) for vouchers. Are you going to give up your gold-plated insurance for vouchers?" Ryan danced around that question and a lot of others at the Kenosha gathering.
One of the highlights of the afternoon came when retired insurance man Bill Schroeder read a list of proposals for balancing budgets. "Do not renew the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy!" he began, to loud applause. The cheers continued as Schroeder proposed ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas, and bringing the troops home from Afghanistan. From throughout the crowded room came cries of "Let's elect him instead of Ryan!"