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.
And to other Jewish community leaders, those 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, Ryan’s name is well known. It’s just not one they’re happy pronouncing.
The Washington groups that deal with budget policy have had many interactions with Ryan, who writes Congress’ proposed budget as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
The interactions have not been happy, Democratic interlocutors say privately, although they emphasize that Ryan is as affable and gracious one-on-one as he appears to be in public. But Jewish groups see Ryan’s plan as 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 is 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 on Aug. 11 after Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, 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.
Outside of his leadership on budget issues, Ryan, 42, has not been prominent in many of the areas that traditionally have attracted the interest of Jewish organizations.
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 to the Tea Party insurgents who fueled the Republican takeover of the House in 2010.
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.
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 who has met Ryan at Republican and pro-Israel events.
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, not solely for Israel.
It is in the area of domestic spending that the clashes between Ryan and the Jewish community are most evident.
On the record, however, formal criticism does not often name Ryan because most organizations do not want to make enemies or seem partisan. But even without names and party affiliation, it can be scathing.
In April 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 members of Congress, slamming plans originating with Ryan that would change parts of Medicare, the medical program for the elderly, to a Medicare Exchange in which a variety of private plans would be available.
The plans 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.”
Also featured 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.
In a March statement slamming Ryan’s proposed cuts, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Committee said, “We are commanded in Deuteronomy, ‘Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.’ ”
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.