Just days into his presidency, with the nation facing its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, Barack Obama unveiled his $787 billion stimulus plan.
It was a moment hailed by some as akin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1934 declaration of massive public works programs, which injected new life into a devastated economy. And it doubtless came as welcome news to many of the nation's unemployed workers, including at least 33,000 of whom live in Wisconsin's First Congressional District, long represented by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan.
This is an area that has been especially hard hit by economic trends. Recent months have seen the closing of the Delphi plant in Oak Creek, ending 3,500 union jobs averaging $26 an hour, along with 300 salaried jobs. Massive layoffs have gutted the once-bustling factory town of Racine, where CNH now has just 680 workers producing tractors, down from 3,400 in 1979.
Chrysler's workforce in Kenosha has been whittled down to 600, one-tenth of the level in 1988. And Janesville is suffering through the loss of its last 1,800 autoworker jobs after General Motors shut down the plant late last year.
Obama's stimulus package, among other things, provided for an extension of unemployment benefits and funding for public-works projects, both of which should help to revive the area economy. But Rep. Ryan not only voted against the plan, along with every other House Republican, he emerged as one of its leading opponents. (Ryan's counterproposal did include enhanced compensation benefits.)
"This is not a crisis we can spend and borrow our way out of - that is how we got here in the first place," Ryan said on Jan. 28, when the measure passed the House. "Yet this is precisely the path the majority chose today. We're repeating the mistakes of a flawed economic doctrine that deepened our depression in the 1930s and prolonged the economic stagnation in Japan in the 1990s."
Ryan's claim that Obama was repeating the "mistakes" of FDR was a peculiar position that brought ridicule from Democrats and pundits like Rachel Maddow of MSNBC. Almost all historians credit Roosevelt for lowering unemployment from about 25% to just under 10% through public spending and for extending economic security to millions by allowing unionization and creating the Social Security Act.
Instead of public-sector spending to create jobs and stimulate spending, Ryan urged a package of tax cuts. As he put it, "We missed an opportunity today to enact an economic stimulus package that empowers the engines of economic growth."
While he represents one of the nation's most economically devastated districts, Ryan touts the virtues of unregulated free-market capitalism. He favors trade agreements blamed for sending jobs overseas and opposes universal health care (and even the broadly supported S-CHIP health program for children).
Such strong adherence to conservative orthodoxy has made Ryan "a rising star" in the Republican Party, according to the conservative Washington Times. But Ryan's growing appeal is based on more than ideology: He is able to deliver the Republican pitch smoothly and sincerely, without adopting Newt Gingrich's sneer or Rush Limbaugh's sometimes cruel self-righteousness.
Ryan, with his sunny disposition and choirboy looks, projects compassion and forcefully proclaims dedication to his district. And he's proven he is not unyieldingly pro-corporate, as when he recently joined in condemnation of AIG "retention" bonuses.
"He is perceived in the district [as] someone who is young, bright, all-American, with integrity," says professor Dennis Dresang of the UW-Madison's Robert M. La Follette School for Public Affairs. "Ryan's done well at constituent casework. People are grateful and will reward you with support."
The question is whether he can keep this up.
At age 38, Paul Ryan has already won six terms in the House, always snaring at least 57% of the vote. (It's doubtless helped that he enjoyed a 31-1 funding advantage over generally obscure opponents.) He's now the ranking Republican on the key House Budget Committee and also serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
The Janesville-born Ryan has been steeped in conservative politics at least since his days at Miami University in Ohio. He was recognized as a bright, articulate young man with a future by such conservative powerbrokers as Sen. Sam Brownback, Jack Kemp and William Bennett. His wide network of connections is reflected in his impressive fundraising, totaling more than $8 million over the last five elections.
Since the Republicans' disastrous showing on Nov. 4, Ryan has become a media darling, appearing on conservative Fox TV and in major newspapers like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. His argument is that the Republicans' fortunes have tumbled because they were not conservative enough in holding down government spending.
Ryan himself consistently voted for George W. Bush's tax cuts tilted toward the rich, which cost the Treasury $1.4 trillion, and has been an ardent advocate of the costly war in Iraq.
In Wisconsin, 60.6% of the Bush tax cuts backed by Ryan will benefit the richest 1% - those earning over $1.1 million - saving them an average of $17,962 annually, according to the Citizens for Tax Justice. Meanwhile, the state's poorest 60% will save an average of just $29 a year, or 5.8% of the total cuts.
Ryan keeps a frantic pace on the speakers' circuit, rallying the faithful at major gatherings like the Conservative Political Action Committee. On March 13, he appeared at the Wisconsin Ronald Reagan Day dinner to accept an award for his fidelity to conservative principles. He's also received an award from the National Association of Manufacturers for his pro-corporate voting record.
Ryan is touted as an up-and-coming force in the Republican Party and a possible future Speaker of the House. Last year, powerful right-wing columnist Robert Novak urged John McCain to pick Ryan as his running mate. Last Saturday, he gave the Republicans' national radio address.
The Washington Times titled its profile of Ryan "The Thinker," highlighting his expansive "Roadmap for America's Future." This "Roadmap," rolled out last May, packages the latest ideas from right-wing think tanks, presenting pro-corporate aims in language stressing individual choice. These include:
- Partial privatization of Social Security, with the federal government promising to cover stock-market losses, a feature that would have proved catastrophic with the Wall Street meltdown.
- Individual "ownership" of health insurance, highlighted by a $5,000 family tax credit for families - well short of the average 2008 cost of $15,600 for a family of four, as tabulated by the Millman Medical Index.
- A fresh round of tax cuts to encourage employers to hire more workers.
Ryan's earnest salesmanship of these ideas has drawn favorable editorials throughout the nation, including here in Wisconsin. For instance, the Kenosha News has praised Ryan "for his sincere effort to transcend politics-as-usual" with proposals like "reshaping and simplifying the tax code."
Conor Sweeney, Ryan's Washington, D.C.-based spokesman, explains his boss' perspective: "Congressman Ryan believes that urgent action is needed to address the deepening recession. He believes the approach of borrowing and spending money for a special-interest wish list of dubious projects coupled with another round of rebate checks will not help in our economic recovery efforts, will not create jobs in southern Wisconsin, and may actually make matters worse with a painful debt hangover."
Sweeney says Ryan and other Republicans in Congress did not simply oppose Obama's "deeply flawed bill." They proposed an alternative economic recovery plan that included infrastructure investments and "a fast-acting tax policy." But critics say Ryan's roadmap, especially with regard to taxes, represents a continuation of failed past policies and is thus ill-suited for this moment in history, especially in Ryan's deeply suffering district.
"It's clear to economists, [including] pretty conservative ones, that monetary policy is exhausted and there is a massive pullback by consumers and capital markets," says Laura Dresser, associate director of the UW-Madison's Center on Wisconsin Strategies. "Any honest look at these numbers endorses the idea of spending a big amount now to shorten the downturn [and] get the economy moving."
Dresser says private companies will not invest in the economy unless there is a market for their products, "and tax breaks don't generate that demand." The rich are more likely to save their extra income than spend it, while low-income people will spend it because they need to.
"The stimulus must be directed to the people at the bottom," she says. "In essence, you can start making stuff because people will buy stuff."
While Paul Ryan seems to have lots of time for national media outlets, he repeatedly rebuffed attempts to interview him for this article. Sweeney, his spokesman, asserted in mid-February that "Congressman Ryan's schedule this week won't allow for an interview."
But pushing the story back a week and even a month didn't change the situation. Sweeney even ignored a direct offer from Isthmus to delay the story as long as necessary to get Ryan's cooperation.
Perhaps Ryan is afraid of advocating his ideas in a forum that includes contrary views. He may sense the vulnerability of his positions.
Ryan's perspective - that New Deal-style job creation was "flawed" in the 1930s and even more mistaken now - could ignite political opposition, given that much of the public supports substantial government intervention in the economy.
Last fall, Ryan's district went for Barack Obama by a margin of 51% to 48%. That's a significant shift from the past two presidential elections, in 2000 and 2004, where George W. Bush netted 51% and 53% of the district's vote.
The liberal American Prospect has put Ryan on a list of potentially vulnerable Republicans. "With public opinion polls showing that voters across the country support quick action on Obama's economic-stimulus legislation," writes the magazine's Tim Fernholz, "it's a delicate balance for Republicans who want to stay true to their conservative base...."
Ryan continues to oppose government job-creation efforts while actively promoting "free trade" agreements of the sort blamed for major job losses in his district. For instance, Delphi workers in Oak Creek were undercut by the corporation's 50 plants in Mexico, where labor costs are about one-tenth what they are here. General Motors built a plant duplicating its Janesville product lines in Silao, Mexico. And Rainfair shut its plant in Racine to move jobs to China, where industrial wages average about 3% of the U.S.
Throughout the district, job losses have led to mounting poverty and growing desperation.
"Unemployment is up to 15.6% in the city of Racine," says Ron Thomas, the local AFL-CIO secretary and United Way labor liaison. "It's a scary situation right now. Those of us who were baby boomers had the notion that after the Great Depression, we'd never see anything like that again, with all the protections for the unemployed put in place. But with globalization, the free-trade agreements and cutback in the safety net, we're wondering about the future."
Racine's Health Care Network, started in the grim days of the early 1980s to pair low-income people with health professionals who donate their time, now has a waiting list of 3,000 people.
Thomas, who helped get this group established and serves on its board, notes that Ryan has twice voted against a bill to provide subsidized health insurance to low- and moderate-income children and some of their parents. He's amazed at the gulf between the district's needs and Ryan's voting record: "With the economy the way it is, we need health care and we need a jumpstart for jobs."
Ten miles further south along Lake Michigan, the blue-collar community of Kenosha is also suffering.
"It's a disaster," says Judy Jensen, the Labor Council secretary-treasurer. "The food pantries have really seen a spike in demand, but we also now see people who used to volunteer and donate to the food banks coming in for food."
"Our industrial base is now in China and other places," adds local AFL-CIO president Ron Frederick. "Every place around here has laid people off."
The risk for Ryan is whether his increasingly visible and prominent role will be undercut by the resentment some of his constituents feel toward Republican policies.
Take UAW staffer Diana Hrovaiten, who lost her job at Delphi as it downsized locally while expanding in Mexico: "Ryan's 'Roadmap' protects the fortunes of the rich, but for the rest of us, it's an eight-lane expressway to destruction."
But professor Dresang says it's not unusual for voters to have "a particular image of a politician" based on personality and not voting records, especially in the absence of aggressive media coverage.
And despite Ryan's support for free-trade agreements and opposition to the Obama stimulus plan, Dresang believes his skillful image control may continue to carry the day.
"From a substantive standpoint, the Republican position of placing a lot of faith in the market is out of sync with most recent experience of both the public and the experts," says Dresang. "But you have a lot of voters who have a positive image, a warm image toward Paul Ryan as a person."