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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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On Medicaid, Romney would block-grant the federal portion of the program to the states and allow them far greater flexibility to alter the program’s design. Ryan proposed a similar approach in his budget, with a particular spending trajectory that would grow with inflation and the population. He has also backed a higher growth rate in a separate proposal offered jointly with Democratic budget guru Alice Rivlin. Romney does not specify how the level or rate of the block grant would be set, but the key for both is the flexibility and efficiency made possible by block granting​—​a point easily made by analogy to the successful welfare reform of the ’90s.

Beyond these, the Democrats will surely try to argue that Romney’s and Ryan’s general tax outlines (to broaden the base and lower rates) would benefit the rich, though Romney has plainly said he would not reduce the share of the tax burden borne by the rich. And they will surely try to argue that the long-term spending trajectory of the Ryan budget​—​with its fairly steep decline in domestic discretionary spending as a share of the economy​—​is implausible, generally making the point with their own quite implausible assumption that cuts would be evenly distributed across all programs. But Romney has not offered long-range spending proposals of that sort, and he is after all President Obama’s opponent in this race. Does Obama expect to win reelection by debating whether House Republicans would spend too little on the National Weather Service in 2034?

It is not easy to see how any of this offers much fruitful ground for Democratic attacks. In each case, an attack would require a great deal of conjecture and assorted unflattering assumptions, yet would invite a fairly specific and obvious question in response: Compared to what?

Their peculiar decision to focus on the minutiae of Republican policy proposals for addressing the country’s economic and fiscal problems puts the Democrats in the position of highlighting the astonishing irresponsibility of their own plans for the future. President Obama has not only presided over the weakest economic recovery in decades, he is also willing to abide unprecedented deficits going forward, Medicare’s rush toward insolvency and collapse, and an explosion of debt unlike anything America has ever seen, all of which threaten the fiscal future of the government and the economic future of the nation. He offers to do essentially nothing to address any of this, focusing instead on increases in the top two income-tax rates that would barely make a dent in the debt. He has ignored the recommendations of his own fiscal commission, refused to consider any structural reforms of entitlements, and pushed through the creation of yet another health entitlement that looks to be as unsustainable as those we have already.

In essence, Barack Obama is saying to Mitt Romney what Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said to Paul Ryan in a budget committee hearing last winter: “We’re not coming before you today to say we have a definitive solution to that long-term problem. What we do know is we don’t like yours.” Geithner’s declaration of delinquency and failure was not well received, and it is hard to imagine that Obama’s will fare much better.

By choosing Paul Ryan for his running mate, Mitt Romney has moved to sharpen this point for the public: The president has failed and has no plan for doing better. This election will not be a referendum on Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney, despite the Democrats’ best efforts. It will be a referendum on a failed incumbent president. And Romney’s choice of Ryan increasingly seems likely to lull the president into a misguided campaign of flailing counterpunches. Obama now seems set to spend the next three months merely telling voters what he is not. But they know what he is not. He is not serious.


Yuval Levin is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center,
and editor of
National Affairs.

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