You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Paul Ryan's Media Manipulation Deconstructed

I've been writing a lot about Paul Ryan's salesmanship. One secret of his effectiveness is that he began his career as a Republican staffer, and developed an operative's sensibility as to how the game is played. By portraying himself to the mainstream media as a deficit hawk rather than a right-wing ideologue, he places his ideas within comfortable, well-worn grooves of establishment thought. He is merely telling uncomfortable truths, and his opponents are "demagogues." Here's Time's Jay Newton-Small taking Ryan's bait:

Democrats have done a decent job politicizing the Ryan budget, and scaring the heck out of seniors. The budget does envision turning Medicare into a voucher system which will result in some, impossible from this far out to determine, cuts in services. Those over 55 would be grandfathered in, so it wouldn't affect the current generation. But seniors hear "cuts to Medicare" and blood pounds to their heads and they're deaf to all other qualifiers.

This is a perfect triumph of Ryan's framing. "Politicizing" suggests that Ryan's proposal is something that ought to be beyond politics, a mere accounting fix, taking the corrective actions that experts understand to be necessary but can be distorted by politics. Ryan does not want to openly debate the ideological choices embedded in his proposal because they're deeply unpopular.

Next, we have the perennial cliche "scaring seniors." One strange assumption here is that it's old people who are the primary targets of the attacks on Ryan's plan. Is that so? A survey for Democracy Corps testing arguments against the Ryan budget actually found that white seniors are more resistant than other demographic groups to Democratic criticisms of Ryan's budget:

White seniors are very volatile – with opposition rising from 32 percent to amazingly, 54 percent. However, after hearing arguments on Medicare and other budgetary issues, many white seniors return, ending the survey with 48 percent in favor and only 42 percent opposing the budget plan.

And then there's the idea that criticism amounts to "scaring." If you oppose any plan to reduce Medicare or Social Security, you will be described in the media as scaring seniors. Opposing other policy changes -- tax hikes, regulation, and so on -- are rarely described in such terms. The image is that of a fearful, ill-informed grandmother acting against all reason.

The media engaged in a frenzy of "scaring seniors" talk during the 2005 Social Security privatization fight. Then, as now, Republicans promised to exempt current beneficiaries. Polls showed that old people understood this, but opposed privatization anyway because they believed that younger people should enjoy the same benefits as them. Yet the press persisted in describing this as if self-interest were the only possible explanation. Newton-Small insists the elderly are "deaf to all other qualifiers." Don't these fools understand they'll be exempt, and younger people will be the ones who have to pay out of pocket costs that start higher and grow rapidly?

Ryan's image as a budget wonk is highly exaggerated -- he frequently commits clumsy errors -- but he does have one field of true expertise cultivated over years of study: playing the media game.