CHICAGO - Hundreds of demonstrators carrying signs and chanting "Hands off our Medicare!" filled the block outside the Palmer House here while GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was inside addressing the Economics Club, trying to sell his budget proposal.
The protest was yet another proof that tough town hall meetings last month were only the beginning of woes Republicans face now that their party is on record as favoring the destruction of Medicare.
Some of the protesters here were in wheelchairs while others marched with the assistance of helper dogs. Harry Aiello, 69, after wheeling himself off the picket line, said, "Ryan can burn in hell." Aiello, a retired Chicago Transit Authority conductor, said, "I worked hard all my life and am crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. We pay for Social Security and Medicare. They are not the cause of the deficit. Ryan, Wall Street and the rest think they can throw us away but they're wrong. Their days are numbered and we're coming to get them."
Ryan is the architect of the Republican budget plan, which includes a proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program. Polls show large majorities of the population oppose the plan, which would destroy Medicare as it now exists.
The national outcry against that is so pervasive that it has turned what would otherwise be an unnoticed special congressional election, May 24 in upstate New York, into a referendum on the GOP Medicare plan.
Polls show Kathy Hochul, the Democrat, with a good chance of winning in the suburban Buffalo and Rochester district, one of the most Republican districts in the nation.
New York's Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer spent the weekend in Amherst, N.Y., telling even younger voters, "If you're gonna have Medicare one of these days, Kathy Hochul is the one fighting to keep it." It was a forerunner of how Democrats plan to fight to regain control of the House in the 2012 elections.
Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have rushed to the district to campaign for Jane Corwin, the Republican candidate. There is a third candidate in the race, tea-party-backed Jack Davis, who said he is opposed to the Ryan budget because he wants deeper cuts than Republicans are calling for. The split in the conservative vote is seen as boosting the Democrat's chances.
Hochul said voters in her district "are talking about two things: jobs and protecting Medicaid."
In addition, Hochul's call for eliminating corporate tax loopholes seems to be resonating better with voters than a right-wing sideshow between Corwyn and Davis.
Last week, Corwyn's chief of staff, Michael Mallia, went to a Davis event featuring veterans and called Davis, a Marine Corps veteran, a "coward." Davis shoved a TV camera and threatened to punch Mallia. The latest polls show Hochul slightly in the lead in the three-way race.
Putting his finger up to test the political wind, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, in a flip flop, also came out this weekend against the House GOP Medicare plan. Gingrich on Meet the Press Sunday morning said the Ryan plan was "too bold." Only a week ago he was advocating replacing the health reform law with the Ryan plan and saying he would support the GOP budget proposal, including its cuts to Medicare.
In his speech at the Economics Club here, Ryan did not back down on any of the parts of his budget, including the overhauling of Medicare. He said President Obama's budget framework was one that called for "redistribution of wealth" and that "redistribution of wealth never created a booming economy."
But unlike Ryan, labor economists say it's 30 years of redistributing wealth from the working class and the poor to the rich, as in the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy defended by Ryan, that is the cause of the current economic crisis.
Photo: John Gaudette, Citizen Action.