By Bernie Becker - 08/12/12 06:10 PM EDT
Senior Democrats moved quickly this weekend to try and turn Mitt Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate into a millstone around the former Massachusetts governor’s neck.
Democrats had been suggesting in recent days that they would welcome a Ryan selection, saying the House Budget chairman’s controversial overhauls of entitlement programs would be a political plus for them.
And once the choice became official, President Obama’s campaign team and senior lawmakers in the party moved to not only emphasize the spending restraint and Medicare overhaul in Ryan’s budgets – but also to play up the GOP ticket’s ties to a Republican House that is both unpopular and a favorite presidential punching bag.
“It's a pick that is meant to thrill the most strident voices in the Republican Party, but it's one that should trouble everybody else, the middle-class, seniors, students,” Axelrod said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“He is outside the mainstream,” Axelrod added. “This was a defining choice for Mitt Romney, and now it’s also a clarifying choice for the American people.”
Other Democrats used different language, but pounded the same theme.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and a colleague of Ryan’s on the House Budget panel, said on “Fox News Sunday” that Romney had “fully embraced” Ryan’s brand of extremism.
The House Republicans’ most recent budget would cut spending by roughly $5 trillion and shift some of Medicare’s funding into private insurance subsidies while also allowing seniors to stay in the traditional program.
Ryan has also proposed turning Medicaid, the healthcare safety net for low-income Americans, into a block grant program for states.
With the campaigns fighting for advantage in key battlegrounds such as Florida, with its senior-heavy population, Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, also suggested Romney had gone all in on the Ryan budget.
“The Romney-Ryan budget is not a budget for growth and prosperity. It’s a budget for redistributing wealth to the top,” Cutter said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
For its part, the Romney campaign on Sunday said the Democratic response was merely another sign that, with the unemployment rate north of 8 percent for practically the entire time Obama has been in the White House, the president cannot run on his own record.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to the former Massachusetts governor, also suggested that the Ryan choice would elevate the GOP campaign into a serious discussion about debt and the growth of government – something, he said, for which voters would reward Republicans.
“Barack Obama has no plan. He’s the sitting president, and it’s amazing he has no policy agenda for his second term,” Fehrnstrom said about the Obama team in a combative joint appearance with Cutter on “Face the Nation.”
Fehrnstrom also dinged the Obama campaign for its negative tone, with the president having made an issue of Romney’s private-equity experience and his tax returns.
“If I had to give their campaign playbook a title, I’d call it ’50 Shades of Mud,’” he added, in a reference to the popular book “50 Shades of Grey.”
But at the same time, Romney has already been forced to try to walk a fine line over the Ryan’s budget vision – which the presumptive GOP nominee endorsed, and said he would sign, during the primary campaign.
“One of the reasons that he chose Paul Ryan was for Congressman Ryan's willingness to put forward innovative solutions in a budget,” Ed Gillespie, a Romney adviser said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “At the same time, it is the Romney/Ryan ticket, and as president, President Romney will be putting forward his own budget.”
And while Republicans have said that excessive federal spending is hamstringing the U.S. economy, the choice of Ryan could also dilute Romney’s message that, as a creature of the private-sector, he would be a better steward of the economy.
The assault from Democrats also underscored that, while Ryan may cut an outsized figure in Washington, he is not well known by many voters.
As the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee noted on Saturday, one poll found that less than half the people in the U.S. even had an opinion on Ryan, who has never run for statewide race.
And Democrats, for their part, have made clear they’re interested in filling in the gaps the way they see them.
Obama’s campaign has already unveiled a website and video hammering what it sees as the key planks in the Ryan budget, plans it says “Romney endorses.”
Axelrod also pointed out Sunday that a 2010 budget proposal from Ryan would have eliminated taxes on capital gains and dividends.
That idea, according to independent analyses, would have put Romney’s tax rate that year at around 1 percent.
“Gov. Romney has embraced many of the positions that Congressman Ryan espouses, extreme as they sound. I mean, he is for the trillions of dollars of tax cuts for millionaires,” Axelrod said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.