House Republicans lacking bumper sticker message for Medicare reform

Republicans know they must improve their Medicare message, but are split on how to do it. 

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has called for a simple, bumper-sticker message, but Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) believes the remedy is more nuanced.

{mosads}Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite who might run for president, said Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) blueprint needs a makeover.

In an interview on the Iowa Public Television program “Iowa press,” Bachmann said Ryan’s plan should be called the “55 and under plan” because its major reforms do not affect current Medicare beneficiaries.

Democrats have been hammering Republicans by repeatedly slamming Ryan’s reforms “as ending Medicare as we know it.”

GOP officials privately acknowledge that after winning the message battle on healthcare reform in the last Congress, they are taking their lumps on Medicare in 2011. 

While President Obama got elected on the simple and straightforward message of “hope and change” in 2008, his healthcare overhaul did not have a consistent and concise theme. 

Republicans have likewise struggled to come up with effective sound bites to describe what they want to do to the Medicare program. 

In politics, a general rule of thumb is that if you are explaining, you’re losing. And the Democrats’ message has been more succinct on Medicare than Ryan’s.

During a recent appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Ryan ripped Democrats for scaring seniors prior to the May 26 special election in New York to replace former Rep. Chris Lee (R). Democrat Kathy Hochul won that race, which was seen as a referendum on Ryan’s bill. 

After Ryan described his proposal, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said, “… that took you about two, two and a half minutes to explain.”

Ryan responded, “That’s the problem.”

During a press conference on Wednesday, Boehner rejected the notion that sound bites and a bumper-sticker message will get the job done. 

“It’s not that easy,” Boehner said. 

The Speaker acknowledged his party needs to improve its communication on Medicare. 

“We have to engage. We have to be on offense,” he said, calling on his members to “explain [the Medicare plan].”

Ryan has expressed optimism that Republicans will be able to educate the general public over the next year and a half on key elements of their Medicare reforms — and avoid losses on Election Day. 

Some in GOP circles say Ryan, who has been all over the cable networks, needs reinforcements. While GOP leadership officials have publicly backed Ryan, they could be doing a lot more, Republican sources say. 

One clear way in which Democrats are winning the message war is on the dispute over whether the House-passed Medicare measure is a “voucher” plan. Ryan and other Republicans claim their reforms would change Medicare into a “premium support” model. 

Regardless, most media outlets have used the word “voucher” to describe the plan, a term that the White House has defended and one that does not poll well. 

By and large, Democrats say Republicans can’t polish dirt, claiming the policy is the problem — not the message. 

John Feehery, a former GOP leadership aide who works for Quinn Gillespie & Associates, said House Republicans need to have an intense training session on “how to communicate on Medicare … to know the ins and outs of the program … to be very conversant as to the details.” 

Feehery, who is a columnist for The Hill, added: “Seniors understand Medicare better than anybody so the members need to make sure they are fully briefed on what you should say, what you shouldn’t say and what the program actually does.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) expressed similar views. “Each member has got to take some responsibility for understanding the issue, and articulating the argument. Some are better than others,” Chaffetz said. “I’ve heard some who have struggled” when responding to questions on Medicare. 

Feehery emphasized that Republicans need to “talk about the problem more than they do the solution because people don’t think that there’s a problem,” with the current Medicare system. 

Republicans this week have hit various Democratic leaders on Medicare, claiming they don’t have a plan to prevent the program from going bankrupt.

For weeks, Ryan has made that case, arguing that Medicare must be reformed in order for it to be saved. However, polls and the result the New York election indicate that the GOP message has not resonated. 

Former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.) told The Hill that Republicans are making the same mistakes that his party had made on healthcare reform.

“One of the reasons my side of the aisle got in trouble in 2009 was the Affordable Health Care Act seemed to be redistribution of income, it seemed to transfer resources from Medicare to create a new bureaucracy, and a lot of Republicans scored points by saying that the Democrats are taking something … like, Medicare, Medicare Advantage and they are diverting resources from it to create a new uncertain bureaucracy,” Davis said.

“The lesson of this year, and the lesson of 2009, is that swing voters don’t want politicians to mess with Medicare, whether Democrats or Republicans,” said Davis, who is a partner at SNR Denton law firm. Davis voted against the healthcare bill in 2010 and subsequently lost his gubernatorial bid in the Democratic primary. 

He added: “Republicans have an opportunity if they very quickly redirect their focus to job creation and redirect their focus to the continuing ailments in the economy. … [That] is something that every Republican ought to be talking about,” Davis advised. 

Tags Boehner Jason Chaffetz John Boehner Michele Bachmann Paul Ryan

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