Back home, a more moderate Ryan
For the majority of Congressman Paul Ryan's town hall meeting in Milton, there wasn't a whole lot anyone — Democrat or Republican — could argue with.
And that's been a successful strategy when he's back home.
Gone are the partisan punch lines that get the faithful riled up when he's out East speaking at political events or as a guest on TV news shows.
Instead he presents a more measured tone, one that his Democratic rivals have been unable to exploit in his previous eight elections.
The listening session at the Gathering Place March 21, 2014 was the last in a series of nine town halls the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee held throughout his district this week, including his hometown of Janesville and Republican-friendly Elkhorn.
Among the talking points in the Power Point presentation that opens every town hall meeting: We have a large federal debt, and without reforms, it will continue to grow. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are driving deficit spending because of aging baby boomers. The tax code is unnecessarily complex and often unfair. The federal bureaucracy often is wasteful and inefficient.
Little argument there.
But eventually, the discussion turns to things that his constituents disagree on — and these aren't small disagreements, which illustrates why Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District can be at times politically polarized.
To the east, traditional union strongholds in the former manufacturing centers of Racine and Kenosha. To the west, Janesville still holds strongly to its UAW heritage from before the GM Assembly plant left town. In between conservative, bordering on Libertarian, small town and rural voters that typically push Ryan into the victory column on Election Day.
Ryan's press secretary, Kevin Seifert, related a story from the town hall in Racine, when back-to-back questioners took opposite sides on immigration. One questioner had an impassioned plea for action on an immigration bill, while the next questioner demanded the Congressman not give in to calls for reform.
Immigration, health care and poverty — the issues that keep thrusting Ryan into the national spotlight — made their way into nearly all of Ryan's meetings that past two weeks.
They also likely will be the issues that define the fall campaign. The challenge for Ryan's Democratic opponents (Rob Zerban and Amardeep Kaleka have announced they are running) is to repaint Ryan as too far to the right for the First District, and there's ample fodder in Ryan's well-documented budget proposals or recent report on poverty. But Ryan has proven adept at keeping control of his own narrative, and he'll have the money to back it up.
In Milton, Ryan clashed with one questioner who asked if Ryan agreed with the approach of the British during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, that giving food to the poor only created what Ryan likes to call a “culture of dependency.”
The argument, put forth in a New York Times op-ed piece several weeks ago by Timothy Egan, goes that Ryan's approach to poverty is, in effect, turning his back on his proud Irish Heritage.
Egan wrote that at the height of the potato famine, there was plenty of food in London that could have been used to help the suffering Irish, but there were many at the time who opposed what they saw as a dependence on charity.
Ryan took exception to the question, explaining that he believes there's a general notion that poverty is government's problem alone.
“We have to drop this idea that government is the only needed thing here,” he said.
“Government has a huge and important role to play in fighting poverty, but not the only roll,” Ryan said. “Civil society, charities, people. They all have got to step up to make a difference here so that we can get people in poverty to an on ramp to a better life.
What government's important roll is, Ryan never clarified.
He ended with this admonition:
“We're not going to have a good adult debate on these issues, if we keep impugning people's motives and if we keep calling people names and throwing baseless charges at one another,” Ryan said.
Which generally is not a problem when Ryan is among those at home who know him the best.
It is good advice, however, for when he returns to Washington and the rhetoric heats up and returns to a fevered partisan pitch.
Dan Plutchak is the editor of CSI Media, publisher of the Janesville Messenger, Walworth County Sunday and the Stateline News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook.com/DanPlutchak or on Twitter @danplutchak