Democrats say Biden must make case for Medicare in vice presidential debate

After President Obama’s weak debate performance, Democrats are looking to Vice President Biden to make a strong, real-world case on Medicare.

Healthcare was seen as perhaps the brightest spot in Obama’s performance Wednesday night. He hit Republican challenger Mitt Romney harder on Medicare than most other issues, but still missed key opportunities and let some of Romney’s attacks go unanswered.

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Democrats active on healthcare say the debate was a “wake-up call” that raised the stakes for Biden’s debate next week, as well as the remaining presidential debate focused on domestic issues.

“Part of the challenge will be to make certain that the clear implications of the Romney policy on healthcare are known. That’s where opportunities were not fully taken advantage of,” said Democratic healthcare strategist Chris Jennings, a veteran of the Clinton White House.

Obama on Wednesday attacked the Medicare plan proposed by Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), but did not forcefully respond to Romney’s attacks on the $716 billion in Medicare savings in Obama’s healthcare law.

“In all this discussion, one shouldn’t be running away from that policy,” Jennings said. “That policy strengthened Medicare in many ways.”

The president did not note, for example, that Ryan preserved the exact same savings in his past two budgets, both of which passed the House with near-universal GOP support. Some Democrats want Biden to mount a defense of those cuts along the lines of former President Clinton’s line that “it takes a lot of brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”

Although Republicans say the math is unreliable, Medicare’s bipartisan trustees said the $716 billion in savings would extend the life of the Medicare trust fund — so repealing them would cause the program to become insolvent sooner.

“Obama has been saying this is helpful, it’s positive — how can Ryan say it’s not, when he’s proposed the same thing?” asked Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack. “How does Congressman Ryan attack ObamaCare in this respect when he’s pretty much taken up this same proposal, and it was adopted on the floor more than once?”

Many Republicans hoped Ryan’s addition to the ticket would usher in a blunt, honest debate about the future of Medicare, which just about everyone agrees is unsustainable. They thought Ryan would be able to explain his Medicare plan to the public, overcoming Democratic attacks that paint it as a “voucher” program seniors should fear. And Ryan often says on the stump that Republicans are eager for a debate on Medicare.

But polls show Obama with a wide — and in some cases widening — lead over Romney on healthcare overall and Medicare specifically. Romney and Ryan’s emphasis on the $716 billion in Medicare cuts is mostly a pre-emptive attack designed to insulate the ticket from criticism of its own controversial plan.

Under Romney and Ryan’s plan, Medicare would transition away from providing defined benefits to a defined contribution — a fixed amount of money seniors could put toward an insurance plan, either a private policy or traditional Medicare. Ryan previously proposed eliminating the existing Medicare program entirely.

Because the plan originated with Ryan, and because Ryan’s budget kept Obama’s Medicare cuts, Democrats are looking to Biden to make their case with particular force.

“Ryan is there and he’s in front of you, and I think that certainly the media gets the hypocrisy and the inconsistency argument,” Jennings said. “So I think absolutely, Ryan being the father of the voucher proposals is going to be very helpful in terms of clear contrast.”

Democrats say Biden’s strengths there are a perfect fit to ratchet up the party line on Medicare — an issue with far more personal resonance than the deficit.

Although Biden's off-the-cuff speaking style can produce gaffes, his political appeal is often deeply personal and he is at ease wearing his heart on his sleeve. His blue-collar roots and affection for the emotional side of politics could pose a stark contrast to Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman known mostly for his mastery of numbers.

“Hearing more costs for current seniors and for future seniors to come is not a comforting message, and that’s really what the policy prescription is,” Jennings said.

Democrats say that’s the key to the Medicare debate: framing the issue around the real-world experience of seniors and people approaching retirement.

“If you do what Romney wants to do and the costs of Medicare go up because of higher provider payments, it means that out-of-pocket costs for seniors go up,” Pollack said. “It does seem like it’s worthy for the president to come back and hit that.”

Obama made roughly that point during last week’s debate, saying that repealing “ObamaCare” — a label he has come to embrace — would mean higher prescription-drug costs for seniors and higher out-of-pocket costs for preventive benefits. Biden and Obama should hit that point even harder, their supporters say.

“Those messages need to be stated very clearly, in ways and in numbers that seniors and non-seniors really understand,” Jennings said. “To me, those are opportunities based on facts that can really turn people’s sentiments on this issue in very, very quick order.”