Republicans insist they're playing offense on Medicare and argue the fall campaign will prove that Democrats do not have the upper hand on the issue.
The debate over the popular entitlement program was renewed over the weekend after Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, as his running mate.
Ryan is the architect of a controversial plan to partially privatize the healthcare program for seniors, an approach that has proven unpopular in polls. Democrats reacted with glee to Romney’s pick, arguing that Ryan's Medicare plan will prove poisonous in the fall.
But Romney took a calculated risk that Ryan would be able to sell the policy on the trail while energizing the Republican base. His campaign moved quickly to pre-empt attacks from Democrats by launching a ferocious assault on the Medicare cuts in President Obama’s healthcare law.
Republicans, including Romney and Ryan, say that approach is working.
“The president was talking about Medicare yesterday. I’m excited about this,” Ryan said at a campaign stop Thursday. “This is a debate we want to have, this is a debate we need to have, and this is a debate we’re going to win.”
Ryan’s Medicare proposal is at the core of his reputation as a serious policy wonk, but he and Romney aren’t spending much time making the case for their overhaul, focusing instead on how Obama’s healthcare law “raids” Medicare to pay for other programs.
Paul Lindsey, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said attacks on “ObamaCare,” and specifically its Medicare cuts, are a tried-and-true recipe for GOP candidates.
“Republicans shouldn’t be afraid of having this debate, especially when they’re on offense,” Lindsey said. “We’re more than willing to have it. We based a lot of our campaigns in 2010 on this fight, and ObamaCare has not changed at all since then.”
But there are few signs that Democrats believe they’re losing on the issue, and even some supporters of the Ryan plan don’t believe the Republican ticket can win a Medicare debate — at least, not the way the party is choosing to fight it.
“Republicans saying they’re on offense on the Affordable Care Act is not new news. They’ve been saying that for years,” a Democratic campaign operative said. “What’s new is the Ryan plan, and they’ve not found a way to be on offense on that.”
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll this week found that Medicare is far more important to voters than Obama’s healthcare law. Last month, the same poll gave Obama an 11 percent lead over Romney when voters were asked whom they trust more on Medicare.
Picking Ryan for vice president was guaranteed to elevate Medicare as an election issue. But if the strategy for countering Democratic attacks is to point to “ObamaCare,” Ryan might be an imperfect messenger.
His budget proposals for the past two years kept the $716 billion in Medicare cuts that he is now attacking, while repealing the rest of the healthcare law. That has led to an awkward handful of news cycles in which Romney had to distance himself from his new running mate’s embrace of Medicare cuts.
The $716 billion at issue is made up of cuts to private insurance companies and healthcare providers, such as doctors and hospitals. Benefits are untouched, and some of the savings from the law are used to help pay for expanded benefits, including preventive care and prescription drugs.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said seniors understand the difference between those kinds of cuts and the more dramatic overhaul Romney and Ryan want to see. Their plan would partially privatize Medicare; seniors would choose between the existing single-payer program or a subsidy to purchase private insurance.
“His message has now become a Medicare message,” Lehane said, equating the debate to a boxer fighting outside his weight class. “You can throw a bunch of punches, but at the end of the day you’re never going to win that.”
Democrats argue the Ryan pick has shifted the focus from jobs to Medicare, where they feel they have the advantage, while muddling Romney’s Medicare attack against Obama.
And neither Republican is making a detailed pitch for his Medicare plan.
“You just have this hodgepodge of junk out there,” said Steve Bell, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Attacking Obama for cutting Medicare can also be construed as an argument in favor of more Medicare spending. As Obama noted on Wednesday, the Affordable Care Act extended Medicare’s solvency by eight years, according to the program’s trustees.
“This debate we’re having now — ‘Well, the president wanted to cut it too’ — where did that come from? Why? Why are you doing that?” Bell said. “Why don’t you just say, ‘It’s going bankrupt. The president wants to continue it in its current form, so it will go bankrupt. And we want to reform it so it won’t go bankrupt'?”
That, to be fair, is part of Romney’s message. He outlined the argument during a press conference Thursday, arguing that seniors will lose access to healthcare services because of the payment cuts in the Affordable Care Act. Romney said his plan would not affect current seniors and would preserve Medicare for future generations.
The overwhelming focus, though, has been on Obama’s Medicare cuts. Bell said that obscures the basic principle behind Romney and Ryan’s plan — that Medicare is bankrupting the federal government and needs to be cut, one way or another.
Bell was staff director for the Senate Budget Committee under Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) — who has since helped craft a Medicare proposal very similar to Ryan’s most recent plan.
Bell said Ryan’s plan is a frank acknowledgement of Medicare’s legitimate woes, but he doubts Romney and Ryan will win the issue.
“To do what Paul Ryan did, to tell the truth, is just not how this debate is unfolding,” Bell said. “It’s become a caricature.”