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Medicare Jujitsu

How Romney and Ryan are turning the Democrats’ favorite campaign attack against Obama

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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Meanwhile, in the race to fill an open seat in Nevada’s second congressional district in September 2011, Republicans had a perfect test case for their Medicare argument. Democrat Kate Marshall attacked Republican Mark Amodei for his support of the Ryan reforms, and Amodei answered with a series of ads pressing home two points that Republican polling had discovered to be powerfully effective: The Republican proposal would never affect any current seniors, and the Democrats had actually cut half a trillion dollars from Medicare. Amodei not only won the election, he won the senior vote comfortably and was deemed a more reliable protector of Medicare than Marshall in the final pre-election polls. His standing on Medicare was better after the campaign than it had been before his opponent ever told voters about the Ryan plan in the first place.

Obamacare on the one hand and the Romney/Ryan-Wyden proposal on the other stood to dramatically alter the political terrain of the Medicare debate. It is the Democrats who now propose to cut current seniors’ benefits and access to care while still failing to avert the program’s (and the nation’s) fiscal collapse, and it is the Republicans who would protect current seniors’ benefits and make them available to future seniors while saving the program from collapse through market reforms.

Most Democrats missed all of this and assumed that their old bag of tricks would make for a powerful attack against Romney on the issue in the fall. And when Romney chose Ryan​—​a leading voice for Medicare reform​—​they thought they saw their chance to strike an early blow. They unleashed the usual nonsense: Romney-Ryan would end Medicare and increase seniors’ costs. But they soon found themselves forcefully criticized in response. The Romney campaign unleashed a series of attacks, including a widely aired television ad, pointing out that Obama had cut Medicare to pay for his unpopular health reform, and that the Romney-Ryan approach would not only leave today’s seniors alone, it would save the program for future retirees.

Soon, the two sides were engaged in a debate regarding the minutiae of Obamacare’s raid on Medicare. Having just called Paul Ryan the enemy of seniors, Democrats defended their cuts by saying Ryan had retained them in his budget (he didn’t​—​he put the money toward the Medicare trust fund, while Romney would put it back into Medicare’s operating budget; both would undo Obamacare’s raid of Medicare). And once forced to acknowledge the cuts, they insisted that they were only cuts in fees to health care providers, not in benefits to seniors​—​though of course in a fee-for-service system, cuts to fees are cuts to services, which is the point of Romney and Ryan’s larger reform away from fee-for-service insurance. By week’s end, Democrats were struggling to demonstrate that they were no worse than Republicans when it came to protecting Medicare​—​hardly where they imagined their attacks on Ryan would take them.

They were unprepared in part because many on the left almost certainly didn’t realize until last week that Obamacare depended on such large Medicare cuts, and in part because they assumed they could get away with it since voters simply associated them with the popular program. Asked by George Stephanopoulos on August 12 whether the Obamacare cuts would harm Democrats’ standing with seniors, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said the cuts were real, but Romney couldn’t make an issue of them because “nobody believes it. You can’t convince people that a Democrat’s going to cut Medicare. They don’t believe that.”

We shall see. But a fight over whether they would cut seniors’ benefits is not the fight Democrats hoped for, and they now look likely to be denied what they imagined would be their most powerful issue of the election. Earlier this year, when she was asked what the Democrats’ top three issues would be in the coming campaign year, Nancy Pelosi responded: “Medicare, Medicare, Medicare.” So what’s left?

Not much, it seems, because the other specific proposals on which the left imagines Romney will be vulnerable because of Ryan probably do not offer them friendlier terrain. On Social Security, Romney again follows the clever new Republican entitlement-reform recipe: Leave current seniors and those now over 55 entirely untouched and save the program for future retirees. In the case of Social Security, the retirement age would be gradually increased and cost-of-living increases for the wealthiest seniors slowed. Those two modest steps would be enough to save the program’s finances, and no current seniors would have any reason to object since they’re exempt.

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