NEW ORLEANS – Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan got boos — and some applause — from the crowd at AARP’s annual convention here Friday morning as he touted his plan to overhaul Medicare and harshly criticized President Obama, who had addressed the group via satellite ahead of Ryan.
The reception for Ryan, which reflected the charged emotions surrounding the Medicare debate, was more mixed than at any of his campaign events since the Wisconsin congressman took the stage at the Iowa State Fair for his first solo event as Mitt Romney’s running mate. In Iowa, Ryan was aggressively heckled by protesters.
In New Orleans, there were a few shouts from the audience.
“You know President Obama’s slogan, right?” Ryan told the crowd of seniors gathered Friday in a ballroom of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. “ ‘Forward’ — forward into a future where seniors are denied the care they earned because a bureaucrat decided it wasn’t worth the money.”
“Lie!” one woman in the crowd yelled as others booed. “Liar!” yelled another.
The crowd was silent for most of Ryan’s speech and applauded him as he took the stage and left it. But some attendees responded with loud disapproval of Ryan’s attack on Obama and when Ryan described his own Medicare plan.
At one point, when Ryan told the crowd that “all that we need now is leaders who have the political will to save and strengthen Social Security,” one man quipped: “Got one!”
At other points in the speech, scattered attendees yelled out, “No vouchers!” and “Tax the 1 percent!”
Ryan’s address, much like Obama’s remarks via video earlier in the day, was both a sharp critique of the other side as well as a defense of the candidate’s plans for the future of the popular health-care program for the elderly and the disabled.
It comes as multiple swing state polls show the GOP ticket losing ground to Obama and as Romney seeks to regain his footing after a series of self-inflicted errors in recent weeks. Central to victory in several of those battleground states will be seniors, among whom Medicare reform is a top election-year issue.
As he did at an event at a Florida retirement community last month, Ryan on Friday went into greater detail when attacking the president than when outlining his own plan for Medicare, which he pitched to attendees in personal terms.
He was loudly booed several times for pledging to repeal Obama’s signature health-care law. But he drew applause when he spoke about his family and noted that his 78-year-old mother, Betty Douglas, was in the audience, just as she has been at other events where Ryan has focused on entitlement reform.
“When I think about Medicare, I don’t just think about charts and graphs and numbers,” he told the crowd. “My thoughts go back to a house on Garfield Street in Janesville. My wonderful grandma, Janet, had Alzheimer’s and moved in with mom and me. Though she felt lost at times, we did all the little things that made her feel loved.”
He added, “We had help from Medicare, and it was there, just like it’s there for my mom today.”
Ryan took care to note two separate times that his reform plan “will make no changes for those in or near retirement.” And he pledged to the crowd that his Medicare overhaul’s “financial support system” — which Democrats decry as a “voucher” plan — would “guarantee that seniors can always afford Medicare coverage, no exceptions.”
He also said he wanted to gradually raise the retirement age and to link the growth of recipients’ benefits to their income levels.
“Our plan empowers future seniors to choose the coverage that works best for them from a list of plans that are required to offer at least the same level of benefits as traditional Medicare. . . . And if a senior wants to choose the traditional Medicare plan, then she will have that right,” he said.
Contrasting his approach with that of the current administration, Ryan argued that Obama has been overly partisan, and he charged that “time and again, the president has ducked the tough issues.”
“He’s put his own job security over your retirement security,” Ryan said. “Of course, he said he’d be willing to work with Republicans. But he has not moved an inch closer to common ground.”
Even as he slammed Democrats, Ryan presented his own approach as bipartisan.
During a brief question-and-answer session after the speech, Ryan took one pre-selected query on how he would work to build bipartisan consensus in Washington and responded by taking aim at Democrats’ use of the word “voucher,” which he called “a poll-tested word basically designed to scare away today’s seniors.”
He told the crowd that his proposal — which received zero Democratic votes in the House when it was included as part of Ryan’s budget blueprint this Congress — is “an idea that has traditionally been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past.”
Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner responded Friday by calling Ryan’s “chilly” reception at the event unsurprising — and by doubling down on criticism of Ryan’s plan as a “voucher scheme” that would increase costs for seniors.
“Earlier this week, American seniors saw what kind of president Mitt Romney would be when he disdainfully wrote off half of all Americans, including seniors,” Kanner said in a statement, referring to the damaging video released this week of remarks made by Romney at a closed-door fundraiser. He added that Ryan’s proposal is “not a plan to strengthen middle-class retirement security.”
Ryan gave the AARP address as some conservatives have been urging the Romney ticket to provide more specifics about their own policy proposals rather than take aim at Obama.
Opinions were mixed among attendees on whether Ryan delivered on the specifics of his plan.
Bob Sherry, a 65-year-old senior engineer and Romney supporter from Chicago, said that he was satisfied with Ryan’s remarks.
“I think he addressed the issues,” Sherry said. “I think in general he and Mitt Romney have been more specific than Obama.” He counseled the GOP ticket to “stay focused on the issues and not get sidetracked by videos and that kind of thing.”
Ron and Connie Lucio, both retired teachers and Obama supporters from Oceanside, Calif., said they believed Ryan would have been better served if he had talked in more detail about his own plan rather than criticizing Obama.
“I was very disappointed,” Ron Lucio, 71, said. “I thought I was going to hear a lot more constructive things in his remarks. . . . For this audience, the tack that Ryan used was not good. I think he could’ve gotten his point across a lot better if they weren’t attacking.”
Asked whether he was familiar with details of Ryan’s plan, Ron Lucio responded: “I haven’t heard anything except they’re going to change it. . . . They change the wording about what they’re proposing. The Republican Party decided ‘voucher’ isn’t a good word.”
Connie Lucio, 69, said that she, too, was disappointed with Ryan but that she was also let down by the crowd’s behavior.
“The attacking from the audience — that doesn’t contribute to the process at all,” she said.