04/22/2011 10:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2011

Despite Polling, Progressives Still Scrambling to Win Budget Fight

Liberal activists and labor groups are taking heart from a spate of independent and commissioned polling showing that the public overwhelmingly rejects Rep. Paul Ryan's House-passed GOP plan. Small wonder: it essentially ends Medicare as we know it, slashes other safety-net programs -- and drastically cuts taxes on the rich to the lowest levels in 80 years. By margins in some polls nearing 90%, those polled favor keeping Medicare in its current format, not turning it into a voucher program that won't cover health care costs for future retirees.

On top of all that, a solid majority of Americans, including Republicans according to a one recent poll, favor raising taxes on the wealthy as President Obama has proposed—for those earning above $250,000. (Even if he didn't fight for taxing the wealthy last year.) So this is a fight liberals think they likely can win during the upcoming budget debate -- despite Tea Party-driven Republican leaders increasingly willing to hold the debt ceiling hostage to their demands -- and in 2012.

As Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future group, points out, "Ryan's budget was a huge gift to us. It makes absolutely clear that they're out to destroy these programs that are vital to the middle class. Our polling shows that it's poison," he says. "There's a big, massive effort especially in Republican districts to mobilize opposition. Even the Tea Party hates this stuff." Maybe so, but early signs are that the high-profile, effective opposition to the full range of budget cuts and tax breaks that is supposed to be unleashed during this Congressional recess  is still too fragmented  to make much of a difference. There's little indicationg that the draconian centrism  afflicting Washington pundits and Democrats is changing, or that Democrats in Congress or the White House fear the wrath of their liberal base.

The booing and hostility that greeted Rep. Paul Ryan when he defended lowering taxes for the wealthy has been greeted by some liberals as yet another sign that the tide is turning in their favor.  But that's hardly the same as a well-organized grass-roots campaign and high-profile advertising war that reframes a budget debate that has been dominated by deficit hawks. Even President Obama accepted the GOP's basic deficit  premise in his Johnny-come-lately defense of a Democratic vision of such programs as Medicare and Medicaid.   

This tough questioning of Ryan and the razzing he faces is hardly the sensational TV equivalent of the media-savvy Tea Party revolt agains the health care bill during the summer of 2009.

As the noted progressive blogger Digby observed, with a blunt candor you don't see from the spokesmen for liberal groups:

The most amazing thing about this -- and as a member of the progressive movement it shames me to admit it --- this stuff is not orchestrated by the Democrats or liberal interest groups. We are, quite simply, too lame and too unorganized to do it. (I know this because there is a huge amount of kvetching going on behind the scenes about why the left can't get its act together on this.)

These are just plain old regular citizens going to the townhalls on their own and challenging the Roadmap to Hell. And they're doing it in spite of the media rending their garments and speaking in tongues about how the deficit is going to kill us all in our beds. 

In truth, there is activism being mounted against the Ryan plan supposedly underway, even if you haven't yet heard much about it. Perhaps the most potentially high-impact events are just starting to being organized for next week, going after saving the low-hanging fruit of the budget debate: Medicare and Social Security, the focus of the "Don't Make Us Work 'Till We Die" campaign led by the Strengthen Social Security coaliton. (An email alert on the events didn't go out to some reporters until Friday afternoon.)

In addition, Political Action is reportedly organizing protests in Congressional districts against the attacks on Medicare, as is the grass-roots organization Americans United for Change, that Social Security coalition that includes unions and advocacy groups, and several other progressive groups. But for any progressive-leaning blogger and reporter seeking information on past and current protests against the GOP budget, it's not been easy to find, although there have been a few exceptions. Indeed, no organization or website has yet even provided centralized, easily accessible information on the range of activist inititiatives. All this is yet another sign of the lack of coordination and ineffectiveness of progressive groups at a critical point for our country.

One organizer, described as the "go-to" person by other progressives in catalyzing the budget fight, was initially reluctant to speak to this reporter, then was unable to say if there was either a list of town halls to attend or even a "take action" web site where people could directly participate further. "There isn't an online tool for this," she observed. "The information on the town halls is very hard to get." She added, "We're asking people to call their congressional offices," in order to find out where the town hall meetings are. She concluded, "There are a lot of angry people out there, and we also  want people to encourage Democrats in the House and Senate to hold the line against a radical restructuring of government."

Yet they're avoiding or discouraging the media while hiding  opportunties for direct activism -- this is a strategy for mass mobilization? These missteps simply can't be chalked up to the overwhelming financial firepower of the Koch brothers and corporate donors funding conservative groups and the GOP.

There may be an understandable reluctance on their part to provide a list of town hall activities for activists to attend, (as Campaign for America's Future blogger David Johnson nonetheless did), worried that GOP legislators might somehow shift the sites at the last minute. But  that still doesn't explain why as of this writing there are virtually no "take action" pages online outside of signing pre-formatted  petitions that are too often ignored by Congressional offices. As one PR spokesperson for a very large membership organization admitted in an email, "Don't have a landing [web] page. Sorry."

Labor, as usual, is the best organized group in any liberal coalition, and on Thursday, the AFL-CIO sent out an important email alert to union members and signed-up activists:

Can we trust Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to fix our long-term deficit problems in a responsible way?

Obviously not. On April 15, they passed an all-out assault on vital programs, including Medicare, to pay for massive giveaways to millionaires and billionaires—while doing almost nothing to balance the budget. The bill was passed without even a single Democratic vote. 

This “budget” bill is a fraud on the American people—not a starting point for debate or negotiations. It is no more of a deficit reduction plan than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s taking away rights from workers was a budget plan.

A budget that’s only passed the U.S. House of Representatives isn’t law. But the big danger is that the Senate will try to cut a deal that meets House Republicans halfway and worsens the imbalance in our economy. We can’t let that happen.


But most of  these groups, with the apparent exception of the Strengthen Social Security coalition,  are not actually providing any information on their web sites about how would-be activists could participate in grass-roots actions -- from protests to phone calls -- that could actually make a difference in a very tough budget fight. The Campaign for America's Future and some of its allies showed the impact that intense lobbying could have on the White House, as they generated petitions and pressed staffers about the strong public opinion against the GOP's plans, especially on Medicare. With justification, Roger Hickey points  to those efforts as helping  toughen the language of the President's talk on the budget. Another exception: claims to have rallied 10,000 people, along with US Uncut, across the country for Tax Day  protests against Bank of America's non-payment of taxes while domestic programs are on the chopping block.

But having a broader impact on Congress, or convincing Democrats and the White House not to throw everything but Medicare under the bus, is still a long way from being realized. That's in part because so much focus is now on preserving the very popular Medicare program while deep budget cuts, especially a flat ceiling on Medicaid spending, and huge tax breaks are getting much less attention. Yet even labor isn't planning to spend on TV  ads, and a much-touted ad campaign against 25  vulnerable Republicans by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee  amounted to just about $6,000.  (Hat tip to ABC's Note.) As Roll Call reported:

Republicans and their allies are laughing off the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s latest round of ad buys as “minuscule” and “irrelevant” after discovering the cost of the effort was less than $6,000.

 “At what point does a campaign committee blush when launching a ‘paid advertising campaign?’” asked Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the outside conservative group American Crossroads.

With so little visibility for a progressive vision and activism, after Washington insiders have  treated cutting the deficit -- as opposed to job creation -- as the nation's top priority, then the drift towards a dangerous  "centrism" becomes much harder to stop.

Indeed, some "bipartisan" deals under serious consideration, for instance, would place a flat limit on domestic spending, thus wiping out the ability of the federal government to aid the jobless, elderly, sick  and poor in times of economic crisis. As a recent report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted about the Corker-McCaskill spending cap, the  subhead proclaimed that it "Would Force Draconian Cuts in Social Security and Medicare; Make It Harder for Nation to Recover From Recessions."

Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus's "People's Budget" that sharply cuts defense spending, closes loopholes and saves needed domestic programs is largely ignored by the mainstream media and Washington power-players. In March, the caucus announced plans for a  17-city   "Jobs and Economic Justice Tour" later this summer, organized by Change to Win, aiming to raise awareness and support for the broad principles of the People's Budget. But that tour, even if it manages to garner media attention, will take place well after the bruising debt ceiling and budget debates scheduled for the spring. 

The public is on their side, but unless progressives become far more visible and influential on the budget debate, members of Congress will likely have to make the budgetary equivalent of Sophie's Choice. They will be asked to choose between potentially triggering a worldwide depression by failing to raise the debt ceiling -- or accepting savage GOP-led budget cuts that could stall a fragile economic recovery and undercut millions dependent on federal programs for help. 


UPDATE: Some angry constituents are starting to raise tough questions at other meetings with members of Congress, a welcome development for progressives, but it's not at all clear that this has much to do with any organizing or outreach by liberal groups that can shape Congressional response on the budget. Think Progress reports:


Earlier this week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) held town halls across his district to defend his budget’s plan to end Medicare and extend tax cuts for the wealthy. During a stop in Milton, WI Ryan’s constituents made their feelings apparent, booing down the seven-term congressman when he defended tax breaks for the rich, as ThinkProgress first reported. Yesterday, Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) received the same hostile reception from his constituents for voting to end Medicare.

This town hall backlash is now spreading to other districts across the country. As Huffington Post reports, freshmen Reps. Robert Dold (R-IL) and Charlie Bass (R-NH) got an earful from their constituents for voting in favor of the Republican budget this month. During a Buffalo Grove, IL town hall, Dold caught a lot of flack for supporting corporate tax breaks and voting to end Medicare...

Update II: A spokesman for Americans United for Change has alerted reporters to even more seemingly spontaneous outbreaks of protest against the Ryan plan at Congressional town halls, most focused on Medicare. It's a sign of the populist resentment against the Ryan plan, but whether progressives will be able to tap into this anger to craft a more equitable budget is still open to question:

House GOP Facing "Angry," "Booing," "Tough Crowds" Back Home After Voting to End Medicare, Give Millionaires Another Tax Break ...

TIME, 4/21 : The Ryan Budget Vote: An Upstream Swim for Charlie Bass: Hillsborough , NH Rep. Charlie Bass knew he was in for a rough night. The first question out of the gate during his Wednesday town hall in Hillsborough , NH was about his vote for Paul Ryan's budget. And the second. And the third and the fourth, fifth and sixth questions.

ThinkProgress, 4/20: VIDEO: Paul Ryan Booed At Town Hall For Defending Tax Breaks For The Wealthy: During a town hall meeting in Milton , a constituent who described himself as a "lifelong conservative" asked [Congressman Paul] Ryan about the effects of growing income inequality in our nation. The constituent noted that huge income disparities contributed to the Great Depression and the Great Recession, and thus wanted to know why the congressman was "fighting to not let the tax breaks for the wealthy expire." Ryan argued against "redistribut[ing]" in this manner. After the constituent noted that "there's nothing wrong with taxing the top because it does not trickle down," Ryan argued that "we do tax the top." This response earned a chorus of boos from constituents...

Wall Street Journal, 4/22 : LANSFORD, Pa. -- GOP Rep. Lou Barletta sought to assuage fears during the town-hall meeting Wednesday by walking constituents through a series of charts illustrating the swelling costs of Medicare and the impact on U.S. debt if the program isn't tamed. But he was interrupted frequently during the presentation by people speaking up to air their concerns. Linda Christman, a 64-year-old Lehighton resident who last fall voted for Mr. Barletta's Democratic opponent, said it wasn't enough for the congressman to promise her that Medicare would still be there for her. Ms. Christman said she wanted to make sure the program would be there for her niece, her children and her grandchildren. "You said nothing in your campaign about 'I'm going to change Medicare,'" she said. "Now you're voting for a plan that will destroy Medicare."

Think Progress, 4/22 : Town Hall Citizens Confront Rep. Sean Duffy For Voting To Privatize Medicare And Defend Tax Breaks For Rich: On Tuesday, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) was the latest congressman to face the ire of Main Street America during a town hall event with constituents who stopped being polite and started getting real. First, constituents explained they were upset that Ryan's plan would cut off people under the age of 55 from Medicare. Then, others directly challenged Duffy about defending tax breaks for the wealthy for voting to effectively replace Medicare with a voucher system.

CNN, 4/21: Freshman Congressman faces tough crowd back home, after budget vote Philadelphia (CNN) - In the suburbs of Philadelphia , freshman Congressman Patrick Meehan is spending his day running around his district, answering questions from his constituents. During the two week Congressional break, the Pennsylvania Republican is fitting in five different town hall meetings in just one day. ... Meehan was asked about entitlement reform and Medicare at nearly every town hall he went to. Some of his constituents say they're worried about proposed Republican reforms to the Medicare system. "Reform usually means cutting benefits, if it's cutting benefits, no, I do not want that," says constituent Bette Popiel.

Daily Herald (IL), 4/16: [Congressman Robert] Dold couldn't even get to the end of the presentation before audience members began peppering him with questions about the Ryan budget, named after House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin ... Some in the audience then told Dold they don't like the idea in the Ryan budget plan of Medicare becoming a voucher program that makes senior citizens buy private health insurance about 10 years from now. Audience members said buying private insurance is a shell game where no one really knows what costs a company will cover or to what degree."

Think Progress, 4/22 : GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan Faces Constituent Anger After Breaking Campaign Promise To Not Privatize Medicare: GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan (PA) faced a "tough crowd" back home after voting for Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) budget proposal that would effectively end Medicare by privatizing it and handing seniors over to the private health insurance industry. ...Meehan was asked about entitlement reform and Medicare at nearly every town hall he went to. Some of his constituents say they're worried about proposed Republican reforms to the Medicare system. "Reform usually means cutting benefits, if it's cutting benefits, no, I do not want that," says constituent Bette Popiel.

The Hill, 4/21: Another GOP lawmaker's town hall heats up over Ryan plan: GOP Rep. Lou Barletta's (Pa.) local town-hall meeting got heated on Wednesday night over his party's proposal to overhaul Medicare. Earlier this week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the architect of the plan, was booed at a town hall in his district.

Washington Examiner, 4/22: Republicans face town hall anger over vote for Paul Ryan budget (Video): The summer of 2009 was dominated by town hall anger against Democrats for their plans on health care reform. Now, in the summer of 2011, Republicans are experiencing some backlash for their deficit reduction plan.

Huffington Post, 4/21: GOP Reps Host Town Halls On Budget, Get Yelled At: Now, Congress is out of session and House Republicans are returning to their districts to tout the benefits of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisc.) plan to turn Medicare into a system of worthless vouchers, and guess what? Town halls are getting heated once again., 4/21: GOP gets a taste of tough town halls: In the summer of 2009, Democratic legislators working on health care reform were met with angry protesters at town halls in their districts. Now, Republicans home for a short break are seeing a similar reaction against the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). GOP Reps. Charlie Bass (N.H.), Lou Barletta ( Pa. ) and Robert Dold ( Ill. ) have all been hectored. And Ryan himself was booed. So far, the protests are scattered and have yet to approached anything close to the reaction to the health care bill in 2009...

This article was adapted from a piece that originally appeared in the labor-oriented Working In These Times blog.