When GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced on August 11 that he had selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, the consensus was that he had made a daring choice with a huge risk: being demagogued on Medicare cuts.
Ryan’s reputation rested on his bold proposals as the House Budget Committee chairman to offer seniors “premium support” payments to purchase their own Medicare coverage. Even though the program is facing an astronomical $38 trillion in unfunded liabilities and is the single-largest driver of America’s mounting debt, Medicare reform has historically been a big electoral loser for Republicans. As recently as May 2011, Democrat Kathy Hochul came from behind to win a special congressional election in New York’s 26th—traditionally a GOP seat—after Ryan’s Medicare plans became the key issue in the race. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi began claiming that three issues would help Democrats reclaim a majority in the lower chamber: “Medicare, Medicare, Medicare.”
Naturally, Democrats were giddy when Ryan was added to the GOP ticket. “Democrats seemed just as exuberant with the choice as Republicans,” reported the New York Times. “Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, argued that the Republican ticket ‘would end Medicare as we know it,’ a preview of the messages that will play out in what will be the most expensive presidential campaign in history.” The Obama campaign soon unleashed a torrent of ads claiming that if Ryan’s Medicare reforms were implemented, “seniors could pay $6,400 more a year,” a talking point Obama and Biden embraced on the stump.
But after months of heated rhetoric and ads savaging the Romney-Ryan ticket, Democrats are finding that their tried and true Mediscare playbook hasn’t worked. An October 8 Pew survey found that 46 percent of voters trusted Obama more on Medicare, compared with 43 percent who trusted Romney-Ryan more—the issue was effectively neutralized. With the presidential election a little over a week away, almost no observers believe Obama is going to carry Florida, where retirees are a dominant electoral force. The issue hasn’t helped Democrats down ballot, either. Earlier this month, Politico ran with the headline “Paul Ryan plan not the weapon House Dems had expected.” Even if Romney and Ryan end up losing, it will be very difficult to argue that it was because of their position on Medicare.
Ryan, an articulate and gifted campaigner, has worked hard to defuse the notion that he didn’t care about the future of the program. He hit the campaign trail with his mother—a Florida retiree on Medicare—to combat the notion he was out to destroy the program. This is a tactic Ryan appeared to borrow from Rep. Mark Amodei, a Nevada Republican who won a special election in September 2011. Amodei parried Democratic Mediscare attacks by addressing the issue in campaign ads with his elderly mother. Amodei’s election was almost a mirror image of the New York special election four months before—the National Republican Congressional Committee circulated a memo and video presentation using the Amodei race as a template for defending the Ryan plan.
Crucially, Amodei won by favorably contrasting the GOP’s Medicare reform plans with Obama-care—another tactic embraced by Romney and Ryan. “Democrats largely disarmed themselves when they gave Republicans that talking point that Democrats took $716 billion out of Medicare to fund a new entitlement,” says Michael F. Cannon, a health care policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute.
How Medicare interacts with the provisions in the 2,700 page Obama-care law is a complicated matter to explain to voters. To the extent the Obama and Romney campaigns sparred on the issue, it quickly devolved into dueling soundbites—the Obama campaign’s $6,400 question versus the Romney campaign’s claim that Obama-care raided $716 billion from Medicare.
But Republicans had a big advantage over Democrats—their number was correct, and there was no honest basis for the Obama campaign’s figure. Obama’s accusation that Ryan would make seniors pay thousands for Medicare derived from an earlier version of Ryan’s plan. Originally, Ryan pegged the cost of the premium support payments to seniors to inflation. A study done in April 2011 by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities came up with the $6,400 figure by estimating what seniors would have to pay out of pocket to keep up with medical costs, which are rising faster than inflation.