When the House of Representatives released their budget proposal yesterday, there was an almost instantaneous uproar from the news media. Left and right leaning organizations alike chastised the GOP for repackaging a budget that had, for all intents and purposes, been rejected both in congress (twice) and during the last presidential election. An Atlantic Monthly business headline read “Paul Ryan’s Budget Simplified: Save the Rich, Spare the Old, Forget the Poor.” I thought to myself, that’s a bold claim to make, but indeed the media all seemed to have the same general consensus. But, there has to be a method to the somewhat hyperbolized madness surrounding this budget. As often as we damn the congress as being incompetent and bull-headed, they are presumably erudite people with some sort of rationale behind their decisions. So it stands to reason that the GOP continues to submit the same budget three years running because there is some validity in its pages. In order to form a true understanding, I’d have to get answers from the horse’s mouth.
It seemed the best place to begin this search would be the primary source, the budget itself. While it’s nice to read synopses about needlessly verbose documents, I knew that only more opinions would come second hand. The House Republicans had taken the time to construct a user-centric website around their budget. It was a nice gesture, if poorly implemented. This isn’t a design critique, so I’ll spare the details of the failed UX, but suffice to say I finally chose to download the pdf rather than read the embedded document.
More interesting than the budge itself was the promotional video embedded as part of the overall marketing package. After gathering the facts I needed from the document itself, I moved on to see what the horse himself had to say in three minutes and twenty-nine seconds. There were many cut scenes of families, small children and seniors with somber instrumental music quietly playing in the background. Ryan had obviously held several strategy sessions about how best to tug at the heartstrings of his constituency. There were several scenes of people using Apple products to watch segments of his video. Product placement?
Aside from the environmental factors, there were many claims made by the Congressman that raised my eyebrows. His slogan centers around two paths for the future of America. “…The America we know or…debt, doubt and decline” What “the America we know” refers to was never made clear, but it seemed to insinuate a shift to free-market capitalism and drastically smaller government. However, according to the US treasury (admittedly a partisan organization) federal employment is at a historic low in relation to overall workforce. Additionally, it is unclear what time frame “the America we know” supposedly represents. As evidenced by the housing bubble, much of the prosperity we enjoyed in the past was falsely inflated. Is that the America we know?
Ryan goes on to attack the “Democratic Senate” for not proposing a budget and continuing to “spend, but there’s zero accountability.” These claims are true, but they do little to argue the validity of his budget plan, or how the plan will benefit the American people. He claims that “the president’s budget calls for more spending and more debt.” This also proved to be true, and upon further investigation, the president’s budget did seem short-sighted. The CBO projected that under the president’s plan, revenue and economic growth would rise through 2017 but then slow and begin to decline through 2022.
The scene cuts to a group of carpenters working on a project, while Ryan narrates in the background: “Despite $2 trillion dollars in tax increases on hardworking Americans…” The scene and narration paint an ambivalent picture, however. The debt hikes from January mainly target earners over $200,000 for singles, $400,000 for married couples. The average carpenter makes about $46,000 a year. While not naming “middle-income” or “working class” in the scene, Ryan misleads the viewer by portraying disparate imagery.
“Debt skyrockets under his plan, and will put us on par with countries like Greece” he says, while a colorful chart animates and disappears, with a pinpoint for Greece. When pausing the video on the chart however, the intersection of US debt with Greece is in 2050. This assertion is speculative at best. The CBO states in their 2013 budgetary analysis, “Additional business-cycle fluctuations will happen in the future, but it is impossible to know when they will occur and whether they will be large or small.” Again, while the initial claim “Debt skyrockets under his plan” is true (and worrisome) Ryan skews the numbers to enforce his message.
The most egregious claims come when he begins to discuss the healthcare reform plan. It seems as though he throws every marketing tactic at this issue to appeal to seniors (the GOP’s main demographic). He strikes at the fear seniors have of being without adequate healthcare when he claims that “under the presidential health law, Medicare will go bankrupt.” Unfortunately, this is a stretch of the truth at best. In reality, a part of Medicare (Part A, covering hospital visits) will become insolvent (unable to cover 100% of it’s costs) by 2016, but will still be able to pay most costs. Furthermore, in a report by the Congressional Research Service in 1970 projected Part A’s bankruptcy by 1972. 40 years later, the same claims are being made.
He also warns that the Affordable Care Act will “[take] the power away from current seniors, and give that power to a board of 15 unelected bureaucrats. AARP, an unaffiliated non-profit for seniors, says, ” Health care under the ACA will not be government run. “The law builds on and strengthens the existing private insurance system,” says Collins. “Fifty to 60 percent of people will continue to get insurance through an employer, and people who are buying their own insurance will still buy private health plans. The choice of plan is not dictated, and you’ll be able to choose the provider you want — no government bureaucrat involved.” Ryan claims that his plan would “put patients in control of their health care decisions” which is true. Under the Ryan budget, health care would move to a voucher system and seniors would have a fixed amount to spend on healthcare. The ulterior motive of this voucher system is being hotly debated, though.
In Ryan’s budget plan, he assumes the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. With a Democratic Senate, this is all but impossible. However, he claims to propose tax reform that’s common sense. Of all the claims made in the video, though, his remarks on tax reform are probably the closest to candid honesty. He does lower the tax rate for everyone, and closes “loop holes” though many speculators believe that will also include deductions for mortgage payments and others deductions for the middle class.
The power of video is undeniable. Whenever an audience has a multi-sensory experience, marketers have the ability to appeal to the users on both blatant and latent levels. Several times throughout the video, Ryan’s vague words can be combined with compelling imagery to send a specific message without committing outright libel. The overuse of fear mongering, name-calling and ambivalent imagery unfortunately discredit his useful claims, like the spending problems with Obama’s plan. In the GOP’s effort to steer people to their line of thinking, they’ve actually succeeded in calling attention to their own sensationalism. I found the answers I wanted after reading between the lines, but–as is usual with American politics–I wish I could have been spared the band-standing.