By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Anointing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney attached a name and face to his fiscal policy.
Jewish Republicans, including the House majority leader, say they are thrilled with Wisconsin’s Ryan emerging as the ticket’s fresh face, hailing the lawmaker as a thoughtful and creative budget guru bent on taming out-of-control federal spending.
Ryan’s name is well known to Jewish community leaders who have been grappling with the Republicans’ chief budget shaper since the party retook the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.
It’s just not one they’re happy pronouncing.
The Washington groups that deal with budget policy have had many interactions with Ryan, who as chairman of the House Budget Committee authors Congress’ proposed budget.
They have not been happy ones, although speaking on background, the first thing Ryan’s Jewish and Democratic interlocutors emphasize is that he is as affable and gracious one on one as he appears to be in public. But Jewish groups see Ryan’s plan threatening Medicare and Medicaid, programs that are cornerstones of care for the Jewish elderly — a population growing faster than among most other religious and ethnic groups.
“The Republicans can write off Florida, or at least its Jewish vote,” said one organizational insider who has a strong working relationship with both parties.
Jewish Democrats made it clear that they were ready to seize the moment.
“Ryan’s signature budget plan drew the profound concern and even ire of many in the American Jewish community because of its plans to end Medicare as we know it, slash vital social safety net programs, and increase the burden on seniors, the middle class and the poor — yet Romney today proudly hitched his horse to Ryan’s dangerous plan,” the National Jewish Democratic Council said Saturday after Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, announced his pick.
Ryan and his defenders argue that his proposals will drive down costs by spurring competitive pricing and save popular entitlement programs from eventual bankruptcy.
“Paul Ryan has challenged both party leaderships in Washington to face up to growing fiscal problems that threaten to blight our nation’s future.,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in its statement welcoming Romney’s announcement on Saturday. “And while congressional Republicans have responded to the challenge, Democrats have ducked responsibility.”
Outside of his leadership on budget issues, Ryan, 42, has not been preeminent in many of the areas that traditionally have attracted Jewish organizational interest.
Elected in 1998, he visited Israel in 2005 on a trip organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), he has joined Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, as the “young guns” heralding a more robustly conservative Republican Party, one that appeals more to the Tea Party insurgents who fueled the Republican takeover of the House in 2010.
Cantor has often pointed out the diversity embodied by the trio — Cantor is a Southeastern observant Jew, Ryan is a Midwestern Roman Catholic and McCarthy is a Western Protestant.
“Having worked closely with Paul, I’ve seen firsthand the energy and commitment he brings to pursuing the kind of pro-growth economic policies we need to create jobs and reduce our massive debt,” Cantor said in a statement. “Quite simply, Mitt Romney could not have made a finer choice for the future direction of our country.”
Ryan has followed Cantor’s lead on foreign policy, co-sponsoring signature pieces of legislation that the majority leader initiated, most recently one that enhances security cooperation between the United States and Israel.
“America has no better friend in the Middle East than the nation of Israel. Not only is Israel the region’s only fully functioning democracy, with a government based on popular consent and the rule of law, but it is also a valuable ally against Islamic extremism and terrorism,” Ryan says on his congressional page.
William Kristol, the leading neoconservative thinker, was among those touting Ryan, although Politico reported that the campaign’s response was “sarcastic” when a reporter asked whether Kristol’s advocacy was a factor in the pick. Politico also reported that Dan Senor, Romney’s top Middle East adviser known for his close ties to the pro-Israel community, will be advising Ryan ahead of his convention speech in late August and his debate with Vice President Joe Biden, which is scheduled for Oct. 11 at Centre College in Kentucky.
Ryan has not interacted extensively with the small Jewish community in Wisconsin, but those who have met him say he’s an eager student of the Middle East.
“He’s thought a lot about those issues, although he might not be an expert like he is on the nitty gritty of the budget,” said Nat Sattler, who has been active in Wisconsin Republican politics and has met Ryan at Republican and pro-Israel events. “Knowing his ability to suck up information, I’m sure he is becoming an expert.”
Ryan still lives in his hometown, Janesville, in the southern part of Wisconsin. Its Jewish community is tiny but has two notable children: former Sen. Russ Feingold and his sister, Dena, the state’s first female rabbi.
Ryan has backed cuts to the overall foreign assistance budget, although he favors funding at current levels for Israel. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups generally are committed to maintaining foreign assistance funding overall, and not just for Israel.
It is in the area of domestic spending that the clashes between Ryan and the Jewish organizational community has been evident.
On the record, however, organizational criticism often does not often name Ryan because such groups do not want to make enemies or to seem partisan. But even absent names and party affiliation it can be scathing.
In 2011, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the two leading policy umbrellas addressing economic issues — were blunt in a joint letter to Congress members slamming plans that originated with Ryan that would transition parts of Medicare, the medical program for the elderly, to a Medicare Exchange in which a variety of private plans would be made available.
The plan also would convey funds for Medicaid, government-funded insurance for the poor, in block grants to the states. JFNA and JCPA objected to the loosening of federal controls over how such money is spent.
“We recognize that this country’s very significant budget deficit threatens the long-term prosperity of our nation,” it said. “We also believe that the major entitlement programs protect the health and economic security of our most vulnerable citizens.”
It continued: “Within the current framework of Medicaid and Medicare, we believe that it is possible to restrain growth and rein in costs,” read the April 2011 letter. “We are capable of strengthening their long-term viability without a fundamental restructuring that turns Medicaid into a block grant or Medicare into a voucher program.”
As the budget debate has become more rancorous this year, the JFNA has opted out, although among other Jewish groups the criticism has become more pointed.
Also featuring in the Jewish criticism of Ryan’s plans are his proposals to slash spending on assistance for the poor, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has taken to naming Ryan in its broadsides against his budget.
“By ending the entitlement status of Medicaid and Medicare, fundamentally altering the tax system, and slashing spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and education programs, the Ryan plan would turn our backs on our obligation to care for all Americans,” said a statement in March from the RAC. “We are commanded in Deuteronomy, ‘Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.’ ”
Ryan’s defenders note that much of his plan was shaped in coordination with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who happens to be Jewish — although Wyden now disavows much of the claim. Wyden notes that he joined Ryan in shaping the plan in part based on the understanding that it would keep intact President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Romney and Ryan have pledged to repeal.
“If you repeal the Affordable Care Act, what Mr. Romney is saying is, he just wishes for the best,” Wyden told the Oregonian.
Jewish community officials say that privatizing entitlement programs is more likely to drive up costs for individuals than it is to keep overall costs down.
“A competition approach is not appropriate for people who are higher risk,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of senior advocacy for B’nai B’rith International. Ryan’s plan, she said, would lure younger and healthier Medicare-eligible Americans into cheaper plans, which in turn would drive up costs for older and less healthy citizens.
Ryan’s defenders note that Obama’s plan also incorporates cuts to Medicare. They argue that Ryan’s plan, broadening options for recipients, is the more efficient and the likelier to prevent further cuts.
“Everyone acknowledges the program is the foremost driver of our long-term debt,” Rich Lowry wrote in National Review Online. “Both Ryan and the president use the same formula of roughly GDP growth plus inflation for setting Medicare’s global budget. The difference is that the president wants a bureaucratic board to get the savings through arbitrary limits on prices that ultimately will limit access to care, while Ryan wants to get the savings through competition and choice.”