Paul Ryan vs. Grandmas in Tennis Shoes

Outside a packed town hall meeting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday a crowd of about 100 protesters appeared to be mainly comprised of retired women. They carried signs objecting to Ryan's plans to slash Medicare and Social Security.

Florence Hammelev, who worked for Catholic Social Services until she retired, said she was celebrating her 70th birthday by protesting Paul Ryan's budget plan.

The plan would destroy Medicare and make life much harder for the poor and middle class, she said.

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"He wants to put us at the mercy of the private health insurance corporations with their outrageous CEO compensation," Hammelew said. "Healthcare should be nonprofit."

At Catholic Social Services, "I saw the problems of the poor up close," she added. The Wall Street firms that caused the current recession should pay for it, she said, "not the most vulnerable."

Sandra Lepisto, a retired teacher who now works as a substitute in Ryan's district, carried a sign that said "For the Very Wealthy, This is a Path to Even More Prosperity," on one side and "Use up the Voucher Money and Then What?" on the other--a reference to Ryan's controversial plan to convert Medicare funding into a voucher program.

Seniors can't buy decent health-insurance coverage for the $5,600 a year the vouchers would be worth, Lepisto and her friends said.

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A new study by David Rosnick and Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that the voucher plan would actually waste $30 trillion. That's because of the waste involved in shifting from a government-run, single-payer system to private health insurers. "This increase in costs – from waste associated with using a less efficient health care delivery system – has not received the attention that it deserves in the public debate," Rosnick and Baker write.

"I am on Medicare," said Lepisto. But Ryan's plan would likely only affect people who are younger than she is. "Those are the people I'm marching for."

"My sister, her only income is Social Security," said Kathy Laru, another retired constituent of Ryan's. "If they went to a voucher system for Medicare, she wouldn't have any money left to live on."

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"Of course I don't want to see Medicare and Social Security go away," said Caroline Grace, a retired accountant for a manufacturing firm. But it's more than that. "I'm against the whole Republican ideology. They want to cut taxes and call it trickle-down economics. That doesn't work. They want to destroy the New Deal and take us back 100 years. I've been reading about this for years. People didn't believe they would go after Social Security and Medicare, but it's not under the radar anymore."

That "under the radar" extremism has worked very well for Ryan, who has continually voted against his own constituents' interests--opposing the extension of unemployment benefits and relief for people whose homes are foreclosed in his working-class district. Now he is a big star in the Republican Party. Veteran political reporter Mara Liasson called his budget plan "the financial platform of the party" today on NPR.

But as his extreme views come clear, his constituents are getting more and more restless.

"There's a reason you don't talk about changing Social Security and Medicare," said John Heckenlively, a longtime labor and Democratic Party activist who ran a poorly financed campaign against Ryan in the last election. "The Republicans have really driven the bus over the cliff on this one."

Heckenlively accused Ryan of planning to do away with Social Security and Medicare during the campaign, but Ryan assured voters that he would never hurt the programs. "He would frequently cite the fact that his father died when he was a teenager, and he and his mother got survivors' benefits," Heckenlively says. "Then he would say 'I believe in Social Security, and I'm not for destroying Social Security,' But it's almost impossible to read this bill and not come to the conclusion that it is a plan to eliminate Social Security."

In Washington, Ryan voted with the most conservative members of his party again and again. But back home, his friendly, approachable manner made him seem like a moderate.

Now that he is the poster boy for the conservative revolution, that's changing.

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An incumbent who was the youngest member to sit on Ways and Means and became ranking member of the Budget Committee, Ryan is a powerful fundraiser, raking in over $3 million in the last election cycle. That has made the national Democratic Party reluctant to put any resources into a race to take him on--especially in a year when "they had 50 fires they were putting out, with a huge number of freshmen they had to defend," as Heckenlively puts it.

"We've had difficulty finding someone who's a good candidate," Heckenlively adds, diffidently. "I certainly did not have the resources you'd need to take on someone who is a 12-year incumbent. He's never had a serious challenge since he's gotten into the House."

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If being the face of the Republican revolution doesn't do it, a whole lot of determined retired women putting on their tennis shoes just might.

"It's just morally wrong," says Lepisto. "I think they've awakened a sleeping giant, and we are more numerous than their wealthy constituents are."

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "What Now Wisconsin II: A Real Plan to Fight Back."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter