WASHINGTON -- A group of progressive academics is hoping that a bit of wonkiness can help shape the political discourse during the presidential campaign.

The group, which has no formal name, has found an outlet in the Scholars Strategy Network, a platform for researchers to collaborate on and share "briefs highlighting research findings, presenting basic facts on timely topics, and offering policy options about many issues."

With an eye toward bolstering President Barack Obama's re-election hopes, the group is zeroing in on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan, which has been overwhelmingly embraced by Republicans, including presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

With the political discourse degenerating into name-calling squabbles -- such as Obama denouncing "Romney-hood" economics and Romney lambasting "Obamaloney" political attacks -- the scholars hope to use substantive arguments to refocus the debate.

The SSN encourages scholars across universities and disciplines, many of whom typically publish their work in academic journals, to produce work targeted at a more layman audience. This includes an emphasis on op-ed pieces, briefs, and a push to get more involved as mainstream media analysts.

"We don't dumb down anything, but we don't talk in any kind of technical language," co-founder Theda Skocpol told The Huffington Post. "Think about your neighbor or your aunt at Thanksgiving dinner, and that's how you write them."

Skocpol had the idea to create SSN more than three years ago, but it’s only in the last nine months that the group has grown as an entity. It now includes about 150 scholars. And while the Ryan budget is one if several issues the SSN hopes to spotlight, it won't be its exclusive focus.

“We have a commitment to laying out the truth in a way that citizens can access and comprehend, including arcane ideas like taxes, budgets and health care reform,” said Skocpol, a sociologist and political scientist at Harvard University. “But it's important for those issues to be clarified and for citizens to understand what's at stake.”

Yale University Professor Jacob Hacker, who serves on the SSN's steering committee, described the current push in support of the Ryan budget as a “big mobilization” that could be held up as an embodiment of conservative priorities. In this case, those priorities that the network of academics will highlight include across-the-board tax cuts, including steep ones for the wealthy, at the expense of investments in education, health care, job training, college loans and other domestic programs.

Hacker, a leading health care theorist known to many as the "godfather" of the public option, is convinced that if most Americans understand these details, it will change the debate in Washington.

“This time around, the Republicans are essentially using the deficit as the central organizing principle for their budget," Hacker said in an interview. "But what they are proposing are plans that every independent analyst says will increase the deficit."

In addition to his work with SSN, Hacker also released a new report with Yale colleague Nate Loewentheil, titled “Prosperity Economics,” designed to counteract the Republicans’ plan, which Ryan dubbed “Path to Prosperity.” In the 61-page report, Hacker and Loewentheil argue that major public investment in areas such as infrastructure and human capital is what drives the economy.

Skocpol knows the group's mission comes with major hurdles. But the SSN is actively hoping to use community settings to make scholars and their ideas more accessible to voters. Examples include speaking engagements at both state and national branches of union groups, the YWCA and the Center for Community Change.

“We don’t expect our briefs to be handed out to 200 million Americans,” Skocpol said. “That's not likely to happen.”

But changing the public debate still remains the overall goal. And as Hacker sees it, if they succeed in elevating the discourse even slightly, it will be worth the effort.

"What's at stake in this debate is whether or not Ryan can maintain that he's going to have a tax reform that's going to lower the rates on high-income people and won't cost the Federal Treasury hundreds of billions of dollars," Hacker said. "To the extent that that fiction is revealed to be a fiction, that changes the debates."

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  • Tim Pawlenty

    Tim Pawlenty's record as governor of Minnesota is more controversial than his bland persona would suggest. When he took office in 2003, the state's budget deficit was $4.5 billion. When he left office, he claimed a surplus of $399 million, but he got there by pushing education expenses into future years. For fiscal 2013, the state has to close a $1.9 billion deficit. One of Pawlenty's budget moves led to a lawsuit, which he lost. Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled that he had <a href="http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/10/29/lawsuit-pawlenty-cuts/" target="_hplink">exceeded "his constitutional authority</a> in making unilateral spending cuts to a $5.3-million special dietary program." During his tenure as governor, Minnesota's unemployment rate rose from 4.6 percent in January 2003 to 7.1 percent in November 2010. Pawlenty claims not to have raised taxes as governor; he does not mention that "fees" went up nearly $900 million. In 2002, Pawlenty's first gubernatorial campaign was <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/vice-president-pawlenty-attacks-democrats/story?id=16859592&page=3" target="_hplink">fined $600,000</a> for violating campaign finance coordination rules. It was the largest fine in state history. Some of Pawlenty's past comments could also cause him problems now. He criticized Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health care plan as "Obamneycare." He once supported a cap-and-trade policy for greenhouse gas emissions -- another Romney no-no. About the latter, Pawlenty has since claimed that he made a <a href="http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/pawlenty-hopes-im-sorry-is-enough/" target="_hplink">"mistake."</a>

  • Rob Portman

    Ohio Sen. Rob Portman's biggest drawback is his longtime association with the Bush family, not necessarily a plus either within the GOP or with swing voters. Neither former President Bush will be attending the GOP convention. Portman began his career with Vice President George H.W. Bush as an advance man. He worked in the White House counsel's office after Bush won and then as director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs until 1991. Later, he was an influential campaigner for George W. Bush. According to the <em>Cincinnati Enquirer</em>, as a member of the House, Portman "had closer ties" to the second Bush's administration "than just about any member of Congress." Indeed, he went on to serve the second Bush as the U.S. trade representative and as head of the Office of Management and Budget. His time as head of the OMB from May 2006 to June 2007 is controversial. The <a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/99516970/American-Bridge-Portman-Book" target="_hplink">national debt increased by $500 billion</a> during that time. Portman also repeatedly voted to raise the debt ceiling as a representative and a senator -- an unappealing record to conservative Republicans. Portman worked for the law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs as a foreign lobbyist in 1985. Patton Boggs' clients then included Haiti, Guatemala and the government of the Sultanate of Oman.

  • Bobby Jindal

    If Romney wants to think outside the box, he need look no farther than Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal is governor. An Indian-American, Jindal would be the first person of color on a Republican national ticket. He is a conservative Catholic, although some of his more fervent religious beliefs might need explaining. Jindal wrote an article for the <em>New Oxford Review</em> entitled "<a href="http://www.newoxfordreview.org/article.jsp?did=1294-jindal" target="_hplink">Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare</a>" about an "actual" exorcism he witnessed in college. Concerns have been raised about links between his wife's charitable foundation and the actions of his administration. Many organizations that lobbied the state government also gave to the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana's Children. The <a href="http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2011/03/how-bad-bobby-jindal-charity-scandal/35582/" target="_hplink"><em>Atlantic</em> Wire</a> reports, "After Jindal's administration signed off on Marathon Oil's request to increase its oil refinery's output, the oil giant committed $250,000 to the foundation." Gov. Jindal's decisions on health care and education spending are controversial, even in his conservative Southern state. His administration recently cut $329 million from the Louisiana State University hospital system, an amount that, according to <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-07-24/la-dot-lawmakers-criticize-few-details-in-health-cuts" target="_hplink"><em>Bloomberg Businessweek</em></a>, represents "one-quarter of its entire budget for the fiscal year that began July 1." And the Louisiana Federation of Teachers <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/01/us-education-vouchers-idUSL1E8H10AG20120601" target="_hplink">filed a lawsuit</a> against the Jindal administration over recently passed legislation that will shift millions of dollars out of the public education system.

  • Paul Ryan

    Rep. Paul Ryan's claim to fame is also his biggest liability: his federal budget plan. As chairman of the House Budget Committee and a sweeping thinker on tax and spending issues, he came up with a plan that is either brave or foolhardy, depending on your point of view. His "Roadmap for America's Future" would slash both taxes and spending. In theory, it would halve the budget deficit by 2020. But there are catches. Ryan's plan would cut deeply into Medicare, education and other social spending. And his claim of budgetary savings requires one to ignore the tax side of the ledger. If lowered taxes are taken into account, Ryan's bottom-line deficit is about the same as the one under President Barack Obama's plan. The <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/06/opinion/06krugman.html?_r=2" target="_hplink"><em>New York Times</em></a> suggested that "the Roadmap wouldn't reduce the deficit. All it would do is cut benefits for the middle class while slashing taxes on the rich." Meanwhile, the <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-04-17/catholic-bishops-paul-ryan-budget/54361480/1?csp=34news" target="_hplink">U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops</a> has criticized Ryan's plan, saying that it "fails to meet these moral criteria" of protecting the poor. The bishops also stated that Ryan's assertion that Catholic social teachings inspired his ideas for the budget was misguided. Ryan claims that under his budget proposals "all federal spending aside from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will fall from 12.5 percent of GDP in 2011 to 3.75 percent of GDP in 2050." But Ezra Klein of the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/the-unrealistic-assumptions-behind-paul-ryans-budget-numbers/2011/08/25/gIQAEZrePS_blog.html" target="_hplink"><em>Washington Post</em></a> finds this claim unrealistic because defense spending alone has never fallen below 3 percent of GDP -- and Mitt Romney doesn't want to let it fall below 4 percent.

  • Marco Rubio

    Handsome and articulate, the Spanish-speaking son of Cuban immigrants, the Florida senator looks like a terrific veep candidate on paper -- until you read that paper. Since 2001, Marco Rubio stands accused of having <a href="http://www.theledger.com/article/20100918/NEWS/9185023?p=all&tc=pgall" target="_hplink">personally profited</a> multiple times from legislative dealings and campaign funds. For example, months after he helped secure an additional $20 million state budget allocation for Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, he was given a consulting contract and paid $8,000 monthly. During his campaign to become speaker of the Florida House of Representatives in 2003, Rubio created the Floridians for Conservative Leadership political committee. But he "did not wait for the state to authorize the committee before accepting campaign donations. The committee listed its address as Rubio's home, a modest place he and his wife bought in West Miami in 2002, but reported spending nearly $85,000 in office and operating costs and $65,000 for administrative costs," according to the <a href="http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/national/marco-rubios-personal-finances-clash-with-call-for-fiscal-discipline/1129566" target="_hplink"> <em>Tampa Bay Times</em></a>. Also in 2003, that committee, supposedly created to support other Republicans, spent "nearly $150,000 on administrative and operating costs and made only $2,000 in candidate contributions," said the <a href="http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/national/marco-rubios-lavish-rise-to-the-top/1079473" target="_hplink"><em>Tampa Bay Times</em> in 2010</a>. "Over 18 months, only $4,000 went to candidates other than Rubio, while similar political committees gave tens of thousands of dollars to candidates. Rubio spent the biggest chunk of the committee's money, $89,000, on political consultants, $14,000 in reimbursements to himself, and more than $51,000 in credit card expenses." Questions were raised in 2010 about whether Rubio and two former state GOP officials personally benefited from spending with their GOP American Express cards without reporting or paying taxes on the additional income. According to the <em>St. Petersburg Times</em>, Rubio charged more than $100,000 from 2006 to 2008 to the state GOP credit card for travel expenses and meals. Moreover, Rubio appears to have embellished his family's history, telling a story of how his parents fled from Fidel Castro. But the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/marco-rubios-compelling-family-story-embellishes-facts-documents-show/2011/10/20/gIQAaVHD1L_singlePage.html" target="_hplink"><em>Washington Post</em> reports</a> otherwise, saying that records show his parents came to the United States more than two and a half years before Castro took power.

  • Bob McDonnell

    Bob McDonnell's appeal is his rock-solid roots in the Bible Belt, but they may be too deep to make him useful in swing states such as Ohio, New Hampshire and Colorado. The governor of Virginia is an outspoken foe of abortion and gay marriage. When McDonnell took office in 2010, he rolled back former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine's non-discrimination employment policy. Under McDonnell's new policy, <a href="http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/02/virginia-gov-bob-mcdonnell-rolls-back-non-discrimination-protections-for-gay-state-workers.php?ref=fpblg " target="_hplink">gay and lesbian state workers</a> were no longer specifically protected against discrimination. McDonnell is a product of Regent University, a fundamentalist, evangelical institution founded by the television evangelist Pat Robertson. In 1989, McDonnell wrote a 93-page thesis titled "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade." In it, the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/29/AR2009082902434.html " target="_hplink"><em>Washington Post</em> reports</a>, McDonnell "described working women and feminists as 'detrimental' to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over 'cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.' He described as 'illogical' a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples." More recently, McDonnell has had trouble handling other social issues. In February 2012, minutes before a vote in the Virginia House of Delegates, he <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/29/us-abortion-virginia-idUSTRE81S0DR20120229" target="_hplink">hastily rescinded</a> his support for a clause that would have required some women to undergo an intrusive vaginal probe before getting an abortion. Even though he rescinded his support, McDonnell was widely criticized and even ridiculed. He said he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/va-governor-bob-mcdonnell_n_1299348.html" target="_hplink">had not realized</a> exactly what the bill entailed when he gave his support. He claimed that, as governor, "You're so busy advocating your agenda, you don't read every legislator's bill." Race has sometimes caused him problems as well. The NAACP -- and even political supporters such as BET co-founder Sheila Johnson -- criticized him in 2010 for failing to mention slavery in his proclamation of Virginia's Confederate History Month. Just one day later, McDonnell admitted that leaving out the struggle against slavery was a "major omission," and he released an amended proclamation.

  • Chris Christie

    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a temper problem. His most recent outburst came in July while vacationing with his family in Seaside Heights, N.J. A passerby blurted out a critical statement about Christie's education policies. He <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/06/chris-christie-jersey-shore_n_1654583.html" target="_hplink">shot back</a> at the man, "You're a real big shot. You're a real big shot shooting your mouth off." He then charged the heckler and told him to "keep walking away. Keep walking." Earlier that week, Christie had insulted a reporter, asking if he was "stupid" and calling him an "idiot." Earlier this year, the governor engaged in a heated debate with a former Navy SEAL, which turned to name-calling when the SEAL kept pressing his point. Christie ordered the veteran, who also was a law student, out of the room and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/09/christie-argues-with-veteran_n_1334963.html" target="_hplink">declared</a>, "If you decide what you want to do is put on a show today, let me tell you something, I can go back and forth with you as much as you want. And let me tell you something, after you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a court room, your rear end's gonna get thrown in jail, idiot." Beyond his loose mouth, Christie has bigger problems. According to the <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/nyregion/christie-takes-credit-for-new-jerseys-economy.html" target="_hplink"><em>New York Times</em></a>, "When Mr. Christie took office, the state unemployment rate was 9.7 percent, ranking 35th in the nation. Now the rate is 9.6 percent, ranking 48th." New Jersey is the second wealthiest state, yet it is falling behind in the national economic recovery and coming up short of revenue projections. Christie predicted that the state's revenue would increase 7.3 percent this year. Other analysts have crunched the numbers and are nowhere near as optimistic.

  • Kelly Ayotte

    Sen. Kelly Ayotte fell easily into place next to Mitt Romney when he campaigned in her state of New Hampshire, and she's made quite an effort to put a friendly female face on his campaign. But the first-term senator has some chapters in her short career that might require closer reading. As state attorney general, Ayotte was a strong gun-rights advocate, a congenial position in New Hampshire, but not necessarily among swing voters in, say, Colorado. A devout pro-life advocate, she <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/kelly-ayotte-r-nh/gIQA6LfTKP_topic.html" target="_hplink">fought</a> for parental notification of teen abortions and argued the position in numerous court cases. She prosecuted two high-profile murder cases, controversially seeking the death penalty in a state that <a href="http://www.concordmonitor.com/article/219364/justices-to-compare-sentences?CSAuthResp=1343760271%3A93e1dp9r2u9cvhb22hifgh9ds5%3ACSUserId%7CCSGroupId%3Aapproved%3AD2ECB3C45316D12B26C5896865269810&CSUserId=94&CSGroupId=1" target="_hplink">has not executed a criminal</a> in 70 years. In one case, the defendant is appealing the penalty. In the other, a jury sentenced the man to life without parole instead. Her decision to seek the ultimate punishment drew <a href="http://www.bluehampshire.com/diary/11122/nh-prosecutors-on-ayottes-death-penalty-politicization" target="_hplink">criticism</a> from members of both parties. The state's current attorney general, along with a GOP gubernatorial candidate, <a href="http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/news/768152-196/ayotte-id-have-acted-if-i-knew.html?i=1" target="_hplink">has lambasted</a> Ayotte for her failure to investigate charges against the firm Financial Resources Mortgage, which was accused of stealing about $100 million from investors. Lack of experience is another drawback. Ayotte has just two campaigns under her belt. In her 2010 Senate race, she was quickly embraced by conservative superstar Sarah Palin and had an early lead, but barely won the GOP Senate nomination, with <a href="http://www.swingstateproject.com/diary/7264/nhsen-hodes-within-3-of-ayotte-with-a-sarah-palin-assist" target="_hplink">less than 2,000 votes</a>. Her <a href="http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/newsstatenewengland/882952-227/hodes-far-behind-ayotte-in-the-all-important.html" target="_hplink">general election</a> contest against Democrat Paul Hodes was also tight, despite her early lead and considerable fundraising advantage. Hodes' focus on Ayotte's tenure as attorney general was enough to boost his standing in the polls.

  • John Thune

    Known for his lean good looks, small-town manners and congeniality, South Dakota Sen. John Thune has the conservative credentials and safe, bland personality to accompany Romney on stage. His weakness may be his thoroughly political r&eacutesum&eacute. He has virtually no experience outside government. And he has few concrete legislative accomplishments to boast, despite those years of service. Political from the get-go, Thune <a href="http://www.thune.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/biography" target="_hplink">started out</a> as an aide to Sen. James Abdnor (R-S.D.) in 1985. When Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) took Abdnor's place, Thune followed his boss to the Small Business Administration under President Ronald Reagan. By 1989, he had returned home to serve as executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party. Thune was next appointed railroad director of South Dakota, where he spent two years before moving on to become executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League. He won his first election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, serving three terms before running for the Senate. He lost narrowly to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and then, in 2004, came back to defeat Daschle, the Senate minority leader, in an even <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2004/nov/03/nation/na-senators3" target="_hplink">tougher battle</a>. Together, the candidates spent nearly $40 million to overwhelm South Dakota voters with negative ads. Few of Daschle's criticisms had to do with Thune himself; the race was largely framed as a contest between the establishment party leader and the inexperienced newcomer. In the end, Thune's triumph over Daschle was so thorough that no one, Democrat or Republican, ran against him in 2010. His voting record in office is <a href="http://www.politicsdaily.com/2011/01/29/who-is-john-thune-and-why-is-he-on-the-gop-2012-short-list-for-p/" target="_hplink">unsurprisingly conservative</a> and consistent, although he did vote for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008. In a 2009 profile in the <em>New York Times</em>, columnist David Brooks <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/13/opinion/13brooks.html" target="_hplink">wrote</a> that what is notable about Thune is what is lacking: His conservatism does not include angry rants or radical proposals. So perhaps Thune can rally conservatives without scaring off the less intense.