The Magazine

Fighting to Win

The Romney-Ryan ticket welcomes a battle over entitlements.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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My mom is a Medicare senior in Florida. Our point is we need to preserve their benefits, because government made promises to them that they’ve organized their retirements around. In order to make sure we can do that, you must reform it for those of us who are younger. And we think these reforms are good reforms. They have bipartisan origins. They started from the Clinton commission in the late ’90s.

The email was notable for two reasons. First, it signaled that the Republican ticket, contrary to early speculation, planned to go on offense on the issue that was supposed to bury them. Second, it demonstrated the challenges they would face in making their case through a skeptical media. Ryan’s words about his mother, meant to reassure seniors, were edited out of the interview that aired on television. 

Perhaps the show couldn’t spare an additional 30 seconds of its 60 minutes to include what were arguably the most important words uttered over the course of the interview—a case that demonstrates the bipartisan roots of Ryan’s “premium support” plans and his personal investment in preserving Medicare for seniors. Time constraints, you know. 

No matter, later in the week the campaign announced that Ryan would be taking his mother, Betty Douglas, to Florida with him. And Ryan wasn’t going just anywhere in Florida, he was going to The Villages, “Florida’s Friendliest Retirement Hometown.” 

Why is the Romney campaign so confident about its ability to win the argument on Medicare—or at least neutralize attacks from Democrats? For one thing, they have successfully reframed the debate. The reality, of course, is that Medicare changes are coming. It’s no longer possible for Democrats to pretend that the debate is over maintaining Medicare in its current form or reforming it. Everyone understands that changes are necessary—including Obama, who has acknowledged that Medicare will go “broke” without reform even as he’s steadfastly refused to pursue the kind of long-term structural reform required. Still, Obama included some short-term changes to Medicare in his health care overhaul, including reductions in payments to providers and cuts to funding for Medicare Advantage. 

There has been some awful reporting on Medicare and Ryan’s reforms. But pretty much every piece includes at least some mention of these Obama-care cuts, often prominently. This was the lead of a Wall Street Journal that ran Wednesday: “With Medicare now at the center of the presidential campaign, an emerging point of contention is the $716 billion reduction over 10 years in the program’s growth enacted as part of President Barack Obama’s health-care law.” So the debate, at least for political purposes, is no longer Current Medicare vs. Risky Republican Reforms; it’s now Obamacare vs. the Ryan-Romney Reforms.

 There’s another reason for the campaign’s confidence: Republicans have won such a debate before, in Florida. Marco Rubio did it two years ago. Running for the Senate, he campaigned unapologetically on many of the reforms in Paul Ryan’s Roadmap. “You have to start by defining the goal,” Rubio tells me. “We want to keep the program for those who are current beneficiaries, and we want to save it for future generations.” 

As a candidate, Rubio did this in a direct and forthright way. “Tackling the issue of the federal debt is going to require significant entitlement reforms,” he said in a debate on Fox News Sunday on March 28, 2010. “That means programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid have to be reformed if we hope to save them so that they exist for my generation. That means we are going to call upon people my age—I turn 39 in May—and people that are far from retirement to make difficult but important and necessary choices to ensure that the runaway growth in entitlement programs and federal spending does not diminish our future or bankrupt America.”

Said Rubio: “A great starting point for this conversation is the Ryan Roadmap.” He added: “I’m proud to have Representative Ryan’s endorsement in this campaign.” Rubio made clear that the reforms would not affect current seniors. “If you’re 55 years of age or older, or close enough to retirement—55 is the number that the Ryan plan uses—I think this is off the table. We’re not talking about you.”

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