By Mike Lillis - 04/11/14 06:00 AM EDT
What would Ryan do?
That's the core question Democrats want to answer for voters as party leaders hone their plan to hammer the Republicans' latest budget bill on the campaign trail this year.
Attacks on the fiscal proposals offered by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have met with limited success in previous cycles, and Democrats are working to improve that track record this time around.
Toward that end, Democratic leaders are working to crunch Ryan's sweeping plan into bite-sized pieces and bumper-sticker slogans they hope will energize voters ahead of November's elections.
Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said Thursday that the steep cuts contained in Ryan's plan have made it that much easier for Democrats to contrast their priorities with those of the GOP. The campaign message, he said, will follow those contours.
"Four words: Whose got your back?" Israel said. "This [Ryan] budget has the backs of the special interests and turns its back on the middle class. That's the defining issue in this campaign."
Democratic leaders met recently to sharpen their strategy, with the focus on efforts to boil down their criticism of the Ryan plan into digestible sound bites in hopes of energizing voters in a midterm cycle when turnout will be crucial.
"We had a big meeting the other day on just that, how we're going to better punch through [this cycle]," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the senior Democrat on the Budget Committee, said Thursday.
Van Hollen said President Obama will be "very involved" in the effort and that he's vowed to use the bully pulpit to help the Democrats attack the Ryan plan.
"I got a call from him the other day. … He said he's going to be out on the hustings talking about these choices. Absolutely," Van Hollen said.
Budget bills are enormous, wonky documents that don't fit well on bumper stickers, and the Democrats are quick to acknowledge that their mere mention can send voters heading for the hills.
But by focusing on just a handful of specific provisions in the Ryan plan — particularly the steep cuts to popular entitlement and other domestic programs — the Democrats think they'll have a winning hand in convincing voters that they're the party fighting hardest for the interests of the middle class.
"If you talk about budgets, people's eyes glaze over. If you talk about, 'Your child's going to be paying another 1,200 bucks to go to college,' that doesn't glaze over," Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday. "The budget is sort of a big number and a big sort of gobbledygook type of thing for them. But when you talk about the consequences, I think that resonates."
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, echoed that message.
"You've just got to compartmentalize how you say it. … If you're talking to seniors; you've got to talk about that $732 billion they're taking out of Medicaid. … If you're for education, look at what they're doing for Pell grants," Clyburn said. "You just zero-in on [issues]. … And then you just go through item by item."
That strategy, though, has shown its limitations. In 2010, for instance, House Democrats attacked a similar Ryan proposal, only to lose 63 seats and the House gavel.
They had better luck two years ago, picking up eight House seats — far shy of the number needed to win back the chamber but more than pundits anticipated heading to the polls.
Van Hollen said the same core budget issues that propelled Obama to a second term are also driving this election cycle. But the Democrats are not expected to take back the House in a midterm cycle, when Obama's approval rating is below 50 percent — controversial Ryan budget or none.
"It's not going to be easy," said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). "You can make the bumper stickers, but taking a budget and … bringing it down where people really concentrate long enough to understand what you're talking about. It has to be in small bites."
Passed by the House on Thursday, Ryan's 2015 budget proposal aims to eliminate deficit spending over the next 10 years through a series of tax reforms and $5.1 trillion in spending cuts.
The measure passed by a close count of 219-205, with 12 Republicans joining every voting Democrat in opposition.
Though it has no chance of moving through the Democratic-controlled Senate, it could prove significant on the campaign trail, as both parties will try to use it to rally voters to their side.
The Republicans view their budget as a blueprint for fiscal responsibility after years of record-high deficits exacerbated by the Great Recession. Democrats argue that it simply cuts too deeply into entitlement and other domestic programs — cuts they say will disproportionately harm seniors, veterans and low-income people.
How the Democrats ultimately convey their message has yet to be seen. But there's no doubt that that's their plan.
"How we reduce it to a bumper sticker? Well, we'll see," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "But the fact is, that this is the case that has to be brought to the American people."