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Medicare Debate Will Be Decided in Presidential Campaign

12:00 AM, Jun 15, 2011 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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Jay Cost has written that, in 2008, Barack Obama ran “a bandwagon campaign with a simple purpose. When your candidate lacks the experience traditionally thought to be necessary to run the government, and you have two wars and an economic slowdown, you need something to cover the gap. And that something was the impression that there was a broad, mass movement behind Obama.”

obama hands hips

To some extent, the Obama campaign was clearly quite successful in creating that impression. Even now, most people don’t realize that Obama beat John McCain by 3.3 points less than the average margin by which Democrats won in House races that year. (Democrats won by 10.6 points in the House; Obama won by 7.3 points over McCain.) 

Cost continues: “Now, he’s the president who has a real — and extremely disappointing — record. Still, look for his team to generate, once again, the impression that he’s riding the crest of some unprecedented wave of popular support. That’s the point of the billion-dollar campaign fund, the gratuitous (and utterly absurd) suggestions that Texas is somehow in play, and the general idea that he’s virtually invincible next year.” 

This isn’t the only realm, however, in which the Democrats are employing the bandwagon strategy. They are using the same strategy to try to defeat the House Republicans’ Medicare proposal (which is based on a bipartisan proposal released by President Clinton’s Medicare commission). Democrats — and their allies in the press — are actively trying to create the sense that the GOP Medicare proposal is inevitably doomed, thereby avoiding a much-needed debate on its actual merits. Hence, poll after poll has been publicized, allegedly demonstrating that the proposal is horribly unpopular. 

I could point out that, on a relatively complex issue such as this one, the wording of the question is everything. There is a colossal difference between asking, “Given widespread recognition, from President Obama and Republican leaders alike, that Medicare is driving our $14 trillion national debt, do you support reforming Medicare by providing future seniors (those not yet 55) with premium support to use to purchase private health insurance of their choice, thereby attempting to lower costs by increasing competition and choice?” — and asking, “Do you support preserving Medicare as it is, or do you support changing it from a guaranteed benefit to a privatized voucher program in which seniors get a fixed amount of money to shop for health care on the open market?” Never mind that the second question is inaccurate on several levels — it’s also a lot closer than the first question to the way the choice is being portrayed in many polls. The key point is, these two questions will elicit very different responses.

I could also point out that a CBS News/New York Times poll showed that, by a margin of 47 to 41 percent, its respondents supported the Republican Medicare proposal — even though a third of them (33 percent) were Democrats and only a quarter (25 percent) were Republicans. And that a Kaiser poll showed respondents to be evenly split (49 to 49 percent) on the GOP proposal — even though nearly half leaned Democratic (49 percent) while barely over a third leaned Republican (34 percent). And that a Pew Research Center poll showed that respondents oppose the GOP plan by only 5 points (41 to 36 percent) — even though 50 percent of its respondents leaned Democratic and only 39 percent leaned Republican. And that the widely reported CNN poll from a fortnight ago was released without its actual poll or internals (it did, however, release its specific Medicare question, which didn’t describe the Republican proposal in the least).

But the larger point is this: Perhaps the most telling poll to date was released yesterday by CBS News. It shows that fewer than one in five respondents (19 percent) have “a good understanding” of the way the House Republican Medicare plan would work, while fully two-thirds (67 percent) currently find the proposal “confusing.” It shows that only 11 percent have heard or read “a lot” about the proposal, while more than five times as many (59 percent) have either not heard or read “much” about it (28 percent), or else have not heard or read about it “at all” (the largest subgroup, at 31 percent). Meanwhile, more than half of all respondents (53 percent) support “fundamental changes” to Medicare, compared to just over a quarter (27 percent) who support only “minor changes.” There is clearly recognition on the part of Americans that something must be done about our debt, and there is growing recognition that Medicare reform must be a part of that. Americans simply need to be persuaded that the reforms wouldn’t destroy Medicare. 

In short, this is not a debate that will be decided by a few (often highly misleading, mostly left-leaning) polls that ask people to evaluate the proposal long before they really understand it. Rather, it will be decided by how well and how effectively someone champions it over the long haul, in the months leading up to the 2012 election. 

Given that only 19 percent of Americans understand the proposal after Republican House members have been talking about it for almost 2-1/2 months, it will also rather clearly require an articulate and persuasive advocate at the presidential campaign level. Since none has, or is likely, to emerge, let’s put a finer point on it: This bold and long overdue display of leadership will likely require its author, Paul Ryan, to step out of his congressional role and champion the proposal as a presidential candidate — as only he can. While there are surely even better reasons for Ryan to enter the race, the success or failure of his Medicare proposal will likely hinge on that important decision as well.

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