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Will Ryan budget derail RNC rebranding effort?

Yesterday afternoon, at an African-American outreach event deep in the heart of Brooklyn, Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Reince Priebus touted his newfound commitment to winning the "hearts" of nontraditional GOP voters, community by community, in intimate outreach sessions targeting all walks of life. The GOP, he intimated, had learned valuable lessons from its failures in the 2012 elections:

"We've got a marketing problem," Priebus said. "A pretty big lesson, I think, for the party is that we can't be totally obsessed with math and arithmetic - that we have to go for people's hearts."

Even as Priebus touted his team's ramped-up efforts to shake off some of the residual stigmas from the 2012 presidential election - "Governor Romney's unscripted moments weren't helpful," he quipped, when asked about the former candidate's now-infamous 47 percent comments - House Republicans were preparing to unveil a controversial budget that Democrats are already painting as the enemy of the middle class, and which could derail some of the RNC's efforts.

The budget proposal, which House Republicans are unveiling today and was penned by unapologetic fiscal conservative and former Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would slow down the increase of annual spending from 5 percent to 3.4 percent, balancing the budget by 2023, in part by transitioning from Medicare to what he calls a "program" future beneficiaries "can count on."

"The other side will demagogue this issue. But remember: Anyone who attacks our Medicare proposal without offering a credible alternative is complicit in the program's demise," Ryan wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Ryan is not wrong that Democrats will target his proposal for Medicare: Before the plan was even public, Democratic pollster Geoff Garin and Guy Cecil, the director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), were gleefully stomping all over it.

"The Ryan budget will be gift that gives throughout the 2014 cycle for Democrats," pledged Garin, in a conference call with reporters on Monday.

Garin and Cecil outlined a series of reasons they say the GOP underperformed both state-by-state and nationally in last year's election. Chief among those reasons, they say, is the Democrats' relentless attacks against Ryan's plans for Medicare and tax reform, as detailed in his past budget proposals, and the damage that did to Republicans who voted for those plans in the House.

"The fact that the Paul Ryan budget envisions this really radical change of turning Medicare into a voucher program that passes all of the cost of health care inflation directly onto the backs of seniors puts them in a very vulnerable position," Garin said. "The basic underlying philosophical premise of the Ryan budget is rejected by a voters in a way that shows up in this larger indictment of Republican policies in general."

Garin pointed to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing that 57 percent of respondents disagree with what Republicans are proposing to do in Congress, while only 29 percent agreed.

"That is really fertile grounds in terms of - in terms of speaking to voters about how and why Republican candidates are out of step and out of touch with the realities that working people and middle-class families are facing today," he said.

The way Garin sees it, Ryan's budget will just reiterate the messages that cost the GOP elections in 2012, thereby handing Democrats infinite opportunities to "hold Republicans accountable - on the air, on the ground, in the mail, and online."

"I would argue based on our experience of polling throughout the 2012 cycle that this sense of disagreement with the Republicans is born very much from a response to the Ryan budget itself and the set of policies that are encompassed in the Ryan budget," he said. "The Republican brand has become a drag on candidates who are tarnished with it, even in states that are reasonably red in their complexion."

Republicans, unsurprisingly, dispute the notion that Ryan's budget will harm them in the next election cycle. Asked how the RNC will combat a Democratic campaign aimed at making themselves, rather than Republicans, look like the party that "cares about you" -- a category, Priebus admits, Mitt Romney lost overwhelmingly last time around -- Sean Spicer, the RNC's communications director, referenced plans to "aggressively" push back against "false attacks."

Asked how he might respond to Democratic claims that, for instance, the Ryan budget slashes education funding, Spicer argued that "it's a fool's errand to sort of claim whoever spends the most cares the most."

"Education has gone up every year," Spicer said. "I think you're going to have a lot of folks in the media, as they've done in the last several weeks, talk -- you know, [as with] when it comes to the sequestration -- talk about just how false the attacks are."

Plus, Spicer argued, "every poll that I've seen, by a large margin, shows that Americans are concerned about the amount of debt that we're passing onto the next generation."

Democrats and Republicans can both point to polling that supports their particular arguments, to a degree. But in 2014 and 2016, as with 2012 and arguably every other election in American history, the elections will inevitably come down to which side can make its case most convincingly - and the loudest.

In 2012, Democrats won that battle. And they're attempting to get an early start in defining the dialogue for the coming election.

"It's very clear that voters sent a message last November -- that they don't want to end Medicare as we know it; they don't want to slash education and job creation in order to fund more tax breaks for the wealthy -- and yet the Republicans have failed to learn the single most important lesson," Cecil argued. "No matter how good their polling gets, no matter how successful they think they are at recruiting candidates, no matter how improved their paid media is in 2014, the fact of the matter is, they continue to support policies that are out of touch with most Americans."

Republicans are also trying to get their message out, and say they're taking a serious look at how to improve upon their 2012 system -- a system they acknowledge failed them. Next week, the RNC will release a comprehensive report detailing the party's so-called "autopsy" of the last race, and a plan for moving forward more effectively. But Priebus acknowledged his party has some work to do.

"When's the last time you heard any Republican, no matter where they're campaigning, on a piece of paper say: 'I'm a Republican because,'" he wondered.

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