Paul Ryan has a way of disarming people at his town hall meetings.
"Hi everybody!" he calls out cheerfully as he strides into the high school gym in Franklin, Wisconsin, holding the microphone talk-show-host style. "Wow! We never used to get so many people at these events." After a few outraged voters made the national news confronting the Republican Budget Committee chairman, Ryan has begun acknowledging that his controversial budget proposal stirs passions, and urges his constituents to share their views openly and politely in front of the cameras.
"We all have strong opinions," he says. "Let's show people we can have a civil debate."
It works. Ryan's friendly, open demeanor relaxes the crowd. So does his pitch that his budget is really not as radical as they've heard -- and that it won't touch them personally.
"How many of you are fifty-five or over?" he asks the crowd in Franklin. Nearly every hand goes up. "This won't affect you," he says.
As he flips through PowerPoint slides, talking fast the whole time, he unleashes a cascade of charts and graphs he says show our economy being crushed under the weight of government spending.
"Welfare reform worked well in the 1990s, but it only reformed one program," he says. "We need to reform the other entitlements."
This is a stunning assertion. Welfare reform eliminated a pillar of the New Deal. For years, politicians have been afraid to touch Medicare and Social Security, because they are crucial protections not just for poor, disenfranchised women and children, who lost AFDC, but for middle-class retirees who vote in large numbers.
Add to this Ryan's advocacy for permanently extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and $4 trillion in spending cuts mainly to programs that serve people with low and moderate incomes, and you have the boldest effort ever to fulfill the rightwing ambition of destroying government.
But Ryan presents it with a smile. "People say this is so draconian -- that we're hurting children. The rhetoric is pretty overwhelming," he says.
When people attack his plan, like a woman wearing a Wisconsin solidarity t-shirt , who told Ryan that his budget is "balanced on the backs of the poor," and pointed out that we have "the lowest taxes on the rich ever," he leans forward and nods and praises her politeness.
"Some people say, 'Just raise taxes,'" Ryan says. "Trust me, it's mathematically impossible," to fix the deficit that way.
He displays a bar graph showing how closing tax loopholes (but keeping taxes low) would affect top earners much more than lower-income people. Voila! His tax plan looks progressive!
To a constituent who says that the entire deficit was created by Republican tax cuts and unfunded wars, Ryan says: "We just disagree from an economic perspective, but I appreciate your point."
Taxing "economic producers," he says, will cost jobs and hurt competitiveness.
You'd never guess, listening to his presentation, that the budget was in surplus, the economy was booming, and the top 1 percent of Americans were paying a tax rate of 39 percent just a decade ago.
Ryan's pitch -- that continuing tax cuts worth an average of $158,000 last year to people who made more than $1 million and dismantling the safety net is a "Path to Prosperity," -- flies in the face of recent experience. But that doesn't seem to matter.
The retirees sitting right beside me in Franklin were not sure what to make of the economic arguments, so they fell back on their gut-level impressions of Ryan's plain-spoken, approachable manner. "He seems all right," said one.
Back in 1989 Roger Ailes, who now runs Fox News, wrote a book entitled "You Are the Message." The essence of it was: It doesn't matter what you say, it's how you say it.
Paul Ryan has mastered that lesson.
Still, not everyone is buying it.
A retired nurse pointed out that converting Medicare into a voucher program and telling the elderly to shop for their own insurance is alarming to anyone who has actually tried to plow through the fine print of HMO plans. "That's a totally legitimate point," Ryan said. "We need transparency."
I asked Ryan about the study by David Rosnick and Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research that shows his plan would waste $30 trillion by diverting money from the single-payer Medicare program to a plethora of top-heavy private bureaucracies.
"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 Dean write.
"Dean and I just disagree," says Ryan. "I don't think it's more efficient to have a single-payer system." Competition is the key to holding down health care costs, he told me.
Never mind that the United States spends more on its privatized system of health care than any other nation in the world, and yet gets worse health outcomes -- we rank 42nd for life expectancy.
The whole Ryan budget represents a massive assault on the poor and middle class.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will actually lead to bigger deficits and more debt over the next ten years -- that's because Ryan relies on a projected boom from trickle-down that is unlikely to materialize, writes Paul Krugman.
Ryan puts a fresh face on the rightwing agenda of social destruction.
Obama counters this beautifully when he defends the safety net. But by adopting Republican talking points about deficit reduction, he gives away the store, as my editor Matt Rothschild observes.
Instead, Democrats should take a lesson from Ryan -- and Roger Ailes -- and put their best foot forward when it comes to stimulus, foreclosure protections, and unemployment and health insurance protections.
If the Right demonstrates anything, it's that you can sell economic policy just by being a fearless advocate for your own point of view.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Paul Ryan vs. Grandmas in Tennis Shoes."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.