GOP winning national Medicare debate two weeks after Romney picked lightning rod Ryan

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
Font Size:

Republicans are winning the political debate on entitlement reform and Medicare, issues long dominated by Democrats, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s selection of running mate Paul Ryan.

A poll released last week shows seniors nationwide back the GOP proposals on Medicare overall, with tight battles in some key swing states.

Romney is out-polling President Barack Obama on Medicare among seniors by margins of 48 percent to 44 percent in Florida and 49 percent to 43 percent in Ohio, according to the New York Times/CBS/Quinnipiac poll. In Wisconsin, Obama is barely ahead of Romney among seniors on Medicare, with a 49-to-46 percent lead.

“Grandma isn’t scared of Paul Ryan,” wrote The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, in an article titled “Seniors <3 Paul Ryan.”

And the president focused on student loans and young voters throughout mid-August, according to Bloomberg, suggesting the campaign is retreating from what used to be politically safe territory after initially hitting the Romney campaign on Medicare.

The situation comes as a surprise to a party that, in previous election cycles, deliberately avoided entitlement talk on the campaign trail. Inside the beltway, GOP officials call the issue the “third rail of politics,” a political landmine that could destroy careers and end bids for public office.

That explains why many on the left collectively jumped for joy when Romney announced his vice presidential pick on Aug. 11. Ryan, a young and energetic House Budget Committee chairman from the Midwest, is well-known in Washington for his complex budget plans, which call for numerous cuts and sweeping reforms of Medicare.

“Paul Ryan is a right-wing extremist who wants to end Medicare,” Adam Green, founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement after Romney made his announcement. “If Democrats win in a landslide, this was the game changer.”

But in the two weeks since Romney picked Ryan, Republicans have shattered expectations and overcome that rhetoric, largely thanks to their presidential candidate’s aggressive campaign strategy.

In his remarks at the event announcing Ryan’s selection, Romney pointed out that Obama cut more $700 billion from Medicare to pay for his health care plan.

“Unlike the current president who has cut Medicare funding by $700 billion, we will preserve and protect Medicare and Social Security,” Romney said on the USS Wisconsin when he named Ryan his running mate.

On Aug. 14, Romney’s campaign released a new television ad, called “Paid In,” that attacked those cuts Obama made to Medicare. That same day, House Speaker John Boehner urged his House GOP caucus members to get aggressive on Medicare all around the country.

“The pundits are buzzing that with Paul on the ticket, the Democrats are going to attack us on Medicare,” Boehner told GOP lawmakers, according to the Associated Press. “Well, here’s a news flash: They were gonna do that anyway. The best defense on Medicare is a good offense. And Paul Ryan gives us the ability to play offense.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) promptly launched news ads nationwide attacking Democrats on the subject of Medicare reform, and the Romney campaign told the media it would make Medicare a central campaign issue.

As the effort began to show results, a member of the White House press corps asked Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Aug. 18 for a reaction to how it “seems like the President and Democrats are on the defensive on Medicare.”

“Well, the President spoke about Medicare last Wednesday in Iowa,” she replied. “He’ll speak about it again today.”

Ryan and his mother hit the campaign trail in Florida, a bellwether state for Medicare politics, just hours later.

“Medicare was there for our family, for my grandma when we needed it,” Ryan told a crowd in The Villages, a retirement community in Florida.

“Medicare is here for my mom when she needs it now and we have to keep that guarantee. My mom has been on Medicare for 10 years, but I won’t tell you exactly how many years over 10 years she’s been on it. She planned her retirement based around this promise that the government made her because she paid her payroll taxes into this program that she had this promise with. That’s a promise we have to keep.”

“We think the best way to save Medicare is to empower 50 million seniors, not 15 unelected bureaucrats to make their decisions in how they get their health care,” Ryan added. “Mitt Romney and I will protect and strengthen Medicare so that the promises that were made, that people organized their retirements around like my mom, will be promises that are kept.”

GOP strategist Mark McKinnon said he thinks “the  jiu jitsu Romney/Ryan seem to have pulled off on Medicare has been brilliant. … They’ve made a potential weakness a strength.”

Aggressive campaigning helped Republicans win big on the Tea Party wave during the 2010 midterm elections, according to Time’s Mark Halperin, and the strategy might also be the ticket to the White House in 2012.

“The commercial plays offense in a way that won races for Republicans in 2010,” Halperin wrote, adding that there’s still a “question of how Romney plans to explain his own Medicare ideas — and link them to saving the program for future generations and job creation.”

Follow Matthew on Twitter