By Sam Baker - 11/03/12 10:00 AM EDT
Attacking Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan — once seen as the most potent weapon in House Democrats’ campaign arsenal — is turning out to be a dud.
Medicare simply hasn’t become the powerful tool that Democrats — and even many Republicans — expected.
"Aug. 11 — mark that date on your calendar — when Ryan was chosen, that made a very big difference. Because Medicare, Medicare, Medicare, the three most important issues in the campaign, in alphabetical order — that issue was clarified, the focus was on it,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said a few weeks ago in an interview with MSNBC.
At least on Aug. 11, many Republican strategists felt the same way. Some GOP operatives fretted that adding Ryan to the ticket would elevate his controversial Medicare plan and threaten down-ballot candidates even more than Mitt Romney.
Instead, Republicans now have a better chance of keeping the House than of winning the White House.
The National Republican Congressional Committee says it’s not surprised. It was prepared for the Medicare debate after a pair of special elections where Ryan’s budget was front and center.
“Everything they said, we knew they were going to say,” NRCC Political Director Mike Shields said. “The idea that putting Ryan on the ticket gave them this issue is absurd.”
Shields said he had advised Republican candidates to lean into a healthcare fight, and that Ryan’s presence on the ticket helped buck up potentially skittish campaigns.
“What I was worried about was that the Democrats would, as predicted, hit Republicans and lie about he Ryan plan and say it was going to end Medicare … and I was worried Republicans would say, ‘We’re not going to talk about that,’” Shields said. “Having him on there helped wake our party up to the fight we needed to have.”
More from The Hill:
• Conflict-of-interest concerns raised as Obama races to implement health reform
• Final weekend sprint finds candidates focused on jobs and the economy
• Romney surrogates fan out across US
• Senate Scorecard: GOP dealt serious blow in battle for upper chamber
The NRCC’s playbook, like the Romney campaign’s, was clearly telegraphed: Change the subject and stay on offense. Rather than debating Ryan’s budget in specific detail, Republicans launched a Medicare attack of their own, accusing Democrats of “robbing” $716 billion from Medicare to pay for President Obama’s healthcare law.
The NRCC is running 20 ads that focus exclusively on healthcare. Only one makes even a vague reference to Ryan’s Medicare plan, while 18 of the ads accuse Democrats of supporting $716 billion in Medicare cuts.
On the merits, that criticism is flawed — Obama’s Medicare savings do not directly affect seniors’ Medicare benefits, and they will improve Medicare’s financial footing. Repealing them would cause the program to become insolvent more quickly, which is why Ryan included the exact same cuts in his budget proposals.
But the attack nevertheless seems to be working. Romney has cut Obama’s lead on Medicare to 5 points, down from 16 just a month earlier, according to the latest tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“If we get that down into small single digits, then it’s really not having a huge impact,” Shields said. “The fact that Romney has been able to essentially play this to a draw with Obama is a victory.”
Democrats acknowledge that they’re unlikely to win back the House, but dispute the idea that “Medicare, Medicare, Medicare” has fizzled.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said Medicare has tracked the general trajectory of the presidential campaign, so it’s no surprise Romney — and Republicans overall — picked up ground after the first presidential debate, which also helped Romney in national polls.
“Once it becomes a dead-heat race and those voters are not trusting Democrats more than Republicans writ large, then they’re also not trusting Democrats more on Medicare,” Lehane said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is hitting Ryan’s Medicare plan at least as hard as the NRCC is attacking “ObamaCare,” and DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson pointed to a handful of races where he said Medicare is helping Democratic candidates. He noted unexpectedly strong Democratic challenges in New York and Florida — a crucial swing state with a large elderly population.
Medicare is also a major factor in New Hampshire, where Democrat Ann Kuster is challenging Rep. Charlie Bass. The DCCC’s latest ad in that race says voters can “Keep Medicare and Social Security, or keep Congressman Charlie Bass,” while the NRCC’s ads argue that Kuster “is so liberal she thinks ObamaCare didn’t go far enough.”
The Hill rates the race a toss-up.
Ferguson said even Republicans realized they would be vulnerable on Medicare, or else they wouldn’t have launched such a strong preemptive attack on Obama’s healthcare law. And Republicans don’t really dispute that — they just say it’s working.
Republicans benefited from carving out their own line of attack rather than playing defense over Democrats’ ads, said Dan Conston, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC affiliated with the conservative American Action Network as well as House GOP leadership.
“They were caught off guard with how much we went on offense,” he said.
Focusing on Obama’s healthcare law — a sweeping piece of legislation with impacts far beyond Medicare — also helped Republicans make a broader healthcare argument that more easily tied back into the economy, he said.
“Where they were just focused on one part of the healthcare debate, we were able to address Medicare and broaden it,” Conston said. “Fundamentally, we were able to litigate this issue in September and then move on to the economy in the critical month of October.”
Although the “ObamaCare” attack has helped Republicans maintain a strong position in House races, Romney and Ryan’s plan is actually more unpopular than Obama’s healthcare law.
Sixty-one percent of respondents in the latest Kaiser tracking poll oppose converting Medicare into the type of system Romney and Ryan have proposed. By comparison, 43 percent said they have an unfavorable view of Obama’s healthcare law, and more people support leaving the law in place than repealing it.
Romney and Ryan’s plan would convert Medicare into a model known as premium support. Seniors would receive a fixed amount of money to put toward the purchase of either private insurance or a government-run plan. Seniors who want to keep the level of coverage Medicare currently offers would likely have to pay more out of pocket.
Although the plan remains unpopular and might be helping Democrats in a handful of races, it simply hasn’t done for Democrats what “ObamaCare” has done for Republicans — in 2010, and now again in 2012.
“I think you’ll see at the end of this that we won a lot of House races by using ObamaCare again,” Shields said.