Senator Ron Wyden, a lifelong liberal Democrat from Oregon, has emerged as a key Republican talking point in the 2012 presidential election.
In his proud pursuit of creative, if politically implausible, policy initiatives, Wyden has in the past teamed up with the likes of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the newly anointed Republican vice presidential candidate. Their collaboration on a Medicare reform proposal helped cement Wyden’s reputation as a “King of Policy Wonks,” as he is sometimes dismissively referred to within his caucus. And it also has given Republicans some cover on the campaign trail.
Now, no less a Republican standard bearer than Mitt Romney, the GOP’s presidential nominee-in-waiting, is invoking Wyden as evidence of his new running mate’s crossover appeal.
Speaking about the Ryan-Wyden proposal at a Saturday rally at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., Romney said that Ryan “found a Democrat to co-lead a piece of legislation to make sure we can save Medicare.”
In Manassas, Romney explicitly name-checked Wyden to argue that Ryan actually wanted to save Medicare where President Obama and Democrats wanted to slash it. “Paul Ryan and Senator Wyden said, ‘No, we need to restore, retain and protect Medicare,’ ” Romney said. “That’s what our party will do.”
Wyden is apparently displeased about his sudden prominence as a validator of the Republican ticket.
“Governor Romney is talking nonsense,” Wyden said in a statement to reporters Saturday night. He based most of his objection to Romney’s remarks on semantics, saying his proposal with Ryan was not legislation but “a policy paper.”
That is not an explanation that his fellow Democrats find persuasive.
“He got used,” said one Senate Democratic aide, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about how Wyden is seen among Democrats in the Senate.
A common view of Wyden within his own caucus is of a man who holds himself out as an intellectually superior renegade who is above the constraints of politics. That self-regard, and a tendency toward peevishness, sometimes leads him to stake out positions that are politically inconvenient to his party. The chief effect of his collaboration with Ryan has been to boost the Republican vice presidential candidate’s bipartisan bona fides and to give the Romney campaign a data point to distract voters from the more politically charged vision of Medicare offered in Ryan’s budget proposal.
By inviting Ryan onto the ticket, Romney energized his base and focused the national debate more squarely on fiscal issues. But he also attached himself to the man the Obama campaign and Democrats will continue to attack as the embodiment of the threat to Medicare’s existence. (One ad depicted Ryan as physically pushing a senior citizen in a wheelchair off a cliff.)
Ryan’s 2011 deficit-slashing budget proposal elevated him to a tea party hero and marked him as a Democratic bogeyman. The Wisconsin congressman subsequently offered a more moderate approach, perhaps in an effort to soften his image and boost his party’s fortunes. Wyden, to the horror of his own party, helped him do that. While Ryan’s original legislation proposed giving seniors federal dollars to purchase private health coverage, the Wyden-Ryan proposal was more politically palatable, giving seniors a choice between traditional Medicare and expanded private coverage.
The White House said the plan would nevertheless “end Medicare as we know it.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other House Democrats said it would essentially kill Medicare. Republican leaders, aware they had just received a gift from across the aisle, exressed markedly less criticism. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called it “a bipartisan idea that’s worthy of our consideration.” Newt Gingrich, who called Ryan’s original plan “right-wing social engineering,” tweeted that the “Wyden-Ryan bipartisan Medicare reform plan is a major breakthrough.” Romney, who had called the original Ryan plan “marvelous,” himself proposed a similar plan. Now he hopes the Wyden-Ryan collaboration complicates Democrats’ otherwise laser-clear line of attack on his running mate, and, by association, him.
Senate Democrats, while doubtful at best about the wisdom of Wyden’s joint effort with Ryan, are not about to let it dissuade them from targeting the would-be vice president for what they claim is a hard-line and heartless budget proposal.
“It’s not going to put any chilling effect on Democrats going after Ryan,” said the Democratic operative. “No one is going to restrain their criticism of the Ryan plan based on the fact that Ron Wyden signed on to a version of it.”
It’s not the first time Democrats have questioned Wyden’s political acumen or wondered whether he wasn’t exploiting his reputation as a bipartisan ideas man to stay in office.
In 2010, Wyden, in search of an issue to bolster his bipartisan credentials and stave off conservative challengers back home, connected with Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) on a bill to tweak President Obama’s health-care overhaul. That proposal, although so far unsuccessful, helped him get reelected. It is also now part of Brown’s bipartisan credentials in running for reelection in liberal Massachusetts.
Teaming up with Wyden hasn’t always been a blessing for Republicans. Utah’s three-term Republican senator, Robert F. Bennett, joined with Wyden to sponsor a health-care bill — a move that infuriated tea party activists and other conservatives, who promptly bounced Bennett from office.