With Rep. Ryan pick, Medicare takes center stage in 2012 election

Mitt Romney's decision to tap Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate puts Medicare front and center in the presidential race. In an unusual twist, both the left and the right had been pulling for Ryan as Romney's choice.

Congressional Democrats were already using Ryan’s controversial budget plans, which would turn Medicare into a system of private insurance partially funded by government subsidies, as the cornerstone of their attempt to take back the House.

Conservative Republicans had reservations about some of  Romney's past policy positions — especially his support for a law similar to Obama’s healthcare reform. But Ryan has the bona fides, and for a decade he's been leading calls to cut the deficit and rein in entitlement programs.

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Republicans said that because the election will be about the deficit and economic growth, the campaign needed its leading intellectual to be onstage.

Leading up to the pick, Democrats said a Ryan pick would boost Democratic House gains and that they hoped Obama would highlight the Ryan budget as much as possible.

“[Picking Ryan] will be a net benefit for Democrats in congressional races,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster at Anzalone Liszt Research. “The Ryan budget is one of the main reasons we pick up a low double digit in House seats.”

“It will be about the Ryan plan,” a House Democratic aide said of the election. “Romney has totally embraced it.”

“The Republican budget is the defining contrast in this election,” said Jesse Ferguson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). “It’s where Republicans put millionaires and their tax breaks ahead of seniors and their Medicare.”

Ferguson said the DCCC had not yet gone on the air with advertisements, but candidates are highlighting the Ryan plan. They used the recent anniversary of Medicare’s enactment to go after Ryan again.

Republicans, meanwhile, argue that President Obama would have attacked Romney for endorsing the Ryan budget no matter who he chose, so Romney is better off getting the benefits of a partnership with the Wisconsin Republican.

They say the Ryan plan is the solution for the weak economy and the ballooning debt. It would cut spending by $5 trillion while lowering taxes.

Republican agree that there is no escaping the policy choices in the Ryan plan now, but they said a full-throated defense is better for Romney than trying to duck a centerpiece of the GOP agenda.

“This will wed him once and for all not just to the Medicare part but to the entire Ryan budget,” said Steve Bell, a former Republican Senate Budget Committee staffer who is now at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Bell said choosing Ryan makes sense.

“If you are going to get that downside, why not have the positives,” Bell said. “If you want someone to defend a budget, you want Paul Ryan. ... He’s completely non-threatening. He’s a guy from the Midwest that most mothers would like to have [as] a son.”

A top Republican strategist said that it will be important for the Romney campaign to go on the offensive quickly over the Ryan budget.

“It can be an asset or a mixed bag depending on how quickly Republicans can define it, rather than letting Democrats define it for them,” Ron Bonjean said.

He called Ryan a “fantastic booster rocket” for Romney by providing the campaign with youth, energy and policy credentials.

Dan Judy, a Republican pollster with North Star Opinion Research said a Ryan choice makes sense because congressional races are showing that Democratic attacks using the Ryan budget only work if the candidate cannot explain the budget effectively.

“Right now it, in swing districts, it is more something that Democrats are using to beat up on Republicans,” Judy said. “Where a candidate is not effective at defending it, it can do some damage.”

“Nobody is better at defending the Ryan budget than Paul Ryan,” he said. 

In an illustration of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, however, Anzalone disputed that Ryan is a great spokesman for his policies.

“[He's] not going to win any personality contests,” Anzalone said.  “Research shows voters are turned off by the smartest guy in the room.”