The Democratic effort to change Paul Ryan’s image from one of a choirboy intellectual to a monster threatening the rights of women is in full swing. As Politico reports, liberals are concentrating their fire not so much on the Republican vice presidential candidate’s plan to reform entitlements as on his part in the faux Republican “war on women” that they launched earlier this year. Instead of Ryan pushing granny off the cliff as part of the Mediscare smear, we’re likely to hear a lot more in the coming weeks about Ryan’s stand on abortion and efforts to depict his budget proposal as hurting women. But the question liberals need to be asking themselves today is not just if these sort of attacks will work but whether they might backfire with a crucial constituency the Democrats need desperately if President Obama is to be re-elected.
The primary obstacle to the Ryan demonization campaign is that it is difficult to whip up hatred for someone who is basically likeable. Ryan’s thought-provoking proposals are controversial because he isn’t afraid to take on hard issues and prescribe bold solutions to seemingly intractable problems. But politics is about personalities and the idea that a person like Ryan, whom has always been described even by his political foes as reasonable, cordial and respectful, can be transformed into a sinister figure is a stretch. It’s certainly not going to be accomplished by hysterical appeals from the left-wing groups or snarky columns by the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd who today wrote of the GOP veep candidate as a Catholic version of arch villain Dick Cheney. The utility of this sort of cheap bile may be to rile up the liberal base. Yet the more Democrats go down this road, the danger is that they will not so much rally women to their cause as they will alienate working class Catholics, a demographic group that Democrats need to win elections.
Liberals always think waving the bloody shirt of the culture war works to their advantage. That’s because everyone in the circles in which they move view Americans who share Ryan’s views in the same way that candidate Barack Obama did in 2008 when he candidly dismissed them as proles “clinging to guns and their religion.” But just as President Obama is smart enough to understand that advocating restrictions on gun ownership is a political death wish in which in which the vast majority oppose such proposals, his media cheerleaders should not deceive themselves into thinking that the electorate will turn on a politician merely because he is a social conservative.
The attacks on Ryan are politically tone deaf because it is not enough to merely target a man’s views to get voters to put them down as an extremist. Those attacks must be linked to something in the candidate’s personality, demeanor or record that strikes the public as disqualifying. But in Ryan, Democrats are confronted by a person with a positive vision, intellectual depth and integrity and a nice personal touch that has been able to transcend partisan differences both in Congress and in his Wisconsin Congressional district where he has consistently won the support of Democrats and independents. Negative ads can be useful but in Ryan, Democrats may be confronting a target that is just too smart and too appealing to besmirch with impunity. Nor can they be sure that by doing so they are not hurting their party with Catholics who might otherwise be enticed to back Obama in November.
The Paul Ryan who toured Florida this week with his 78-year-old Medicare recipient mother is not one that will be so easily trashed as a threat to old people. Expecting female voters to fall in lockstep with Obama merely by screaming about abortion may be equally futile.