Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, had returned to his district in southern Wisconsin to detail his 2012 budget proposal at a series of small community meetings, none of which turned out to be small. Here, at a library in a 7,300-person town where constituents call the congressman by first name only, people referred to his budget by either Ryan’s term, the “Path to Prosperity,” or their own, the “Road to Ruin.” Ryan’s short speech only amplified the divide.
“We are heading for disaster in America,” Ryan said, igniting another round of cheers and boos.
And then: “This is our generation’s defining moment. This is our fork in the road.”
Seated in the sixth row of folding chairs, lost amid the commotion, a 64-year-old man in wire-rimmed glasses leaned forward and quietly raised his hand. Clarence Cammers had come to ask a question, one that had been weighing on his mind for the past two weeks.
A lifelong Republican, Cammers had studied all 73 pages of Ryan’s proposal, which aims to erase the $14 trillion national debt in part by minimizing popular entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He had punched Ryan’s numbers into a worn gray calculator, trying to decipher how those gigantic sums would affect his family’s income of hourly wages and the very entitlements Ryan had targeted. He had parted his hair, tucked a collared shirt into his jeans and driven to the listening session. On the way, he had rehearsed the question in his head.
And then he waited. He held his hand in the air like so many others in Ryan’s district, a stretch of rural flatland that spans from Racine, with the state’s highest unemployment, to Janesville, still devastated from the closing of a General Motors plant last year. It is a conservative area that has voted for Ryan seven times in part because people here believe in fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget. But a high percentage of them are also older and working-class, unsure if they can withstand the cuts their congressman has proposed.
Cammers waited with his question while Ryan quieted the library crowd, gave a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation titled “A Choice of Two Futures,” called on six other constituents with their hands in the air and then, finally, pointed his index finger to the middle of the sixth row:
“Yes, you. The gentleman there in the middle.”
Cammers stood up, stammered and introduced himself as a disabled veteran. He said the whole budget predicament seemed like an impossible choice between a mounting national debt and devastating cutbacks. He explained that he was living on Social Security, and that he had made a pretty decent living once while working in management, and that he could survive a few cuts.