Paul Ryan’s forceful but prosaic acceptance speech on Wednesday continued one of the campaign’s most surprising strategic twists: the Republican effort to take the offensive on Medicare.
Although polls show that Ryan’s proposal to transform Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system still faces enormous public skepticism, he aggressively insisted that President Obama’s health care plan represents the real threat to the giant program for the elderly.
“An obligation we have to our parents and grandparents is being sacrificed, all to pay for a new entitlement we didn’t even ask for,” Ryan declared during an acceptance speech in which he started stiffly but gained momentum as he progressed. “The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we’re going to stop it.”
Ryan’s language elevated to the headlines an argument that congressional Republicans have honed since their victory in a special election for a House seat in Nevada last fall—and crystallized a case that Romney advisers say they intend to press through November. “It’s not a Medicare argument anymore,” said Stu Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist. “It’s a Medicare-Obamacare argument.”
Ryan’s speech lacked the electricity of Sarah Palin’s show-stopping acceptance four years ago; in his initial hesitation, he seemed a bit like a car engine struggling to turn over on a winter Wisconsin morning. And the fact that Ryan did not attempt, even in passing, to explain his own Medicare proposal may signal continued uncertainty in his campaign about its political viability. Instead, by targeting the impact of Obama’s health care plan on Medicare, he signaled again the campaign’s belief that the best defense on the issue may be a good offense.
The case Ryan presented on Medicare anchors the GOP effort to maintain its preponderant margins among the older whites central to its electoral strategy. The Republican share of the vote among white seniors has increased in each of the five presidential elections since 1992, peaking at 58 percent in 2008. With Obama’s health care plan already generating anxiety, exit polls showed that the GOP performance among white seniors soared to 63 percent in the 2010 House races. Romney may need comparable numbers to assemble a national majority this year.
Democrats believe that Ryan’s budget, which Romney has largely embraced, provides them an opportunity to recover some of that lost ground, and they have ferociously attacked it since Romney selected the representative from Wisconsin as his running mate—including at events in Tampa this week. Veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who has polled extensively on the Ryan plan, says the GOP’s counterattack represents the party’s best option, but that it will ultimately prove inadequate. “I think they are still on the defensive here,” he says, “because in the end what they are trying to do is fundamentally change Medicare.”
Polls show that both sides enter this debate in an unusually vulnerable position. On the one hand, surveys have consistently shown enormous skepticism among older whites about the Ryan Medicare plan. In March, just 19 percent of white seniors in a United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll said they supported converting Medicare into the structure Ryan has proposed, while 74 percent said they would leave the program in its current form. Despite Republican efforts to sell the Ryan plan since his selection, an ABC News/Washington Post survey this week found that white seniors opposed his approach by nearly 2-to-1, according to detailed results provided by Washington Post polling editor Jon Cohen. Ryan’s plan scored nearly as poorly among whites near retirement (those ages 50-64).
But Obama’s health care law has also consistently faced enormous resistance from older whites. The plan is one of the rare federal policies that explicitly seeks to transfer resources down the generational ladder: Although it expands benefits for seniors in certain respects, the law also funds the expansion of coverage for the working-age uninsured. It slows the growth of Medicare spending by $700 billion, mostly by reducing payments to providers. The two budgets that Ryan passed through the House also included those cuts, but Romney has now pledged to reverse them.
In the latest Kaiser Family Foundation health care tracking poll this month, just 22 percent of white seniors said they believed their family would be better off under the Obama plan, while 36 percent said they expect to be worse off.
As these competing anxieties collide, the new ABC News/Washington Post poll produced a head-turning result: It found that white seniors, by 51 percent to 36 percent, say they trust Romney over Obama to handle Medicare; among whites near retirement (aged 50-64), Romney led by 2-to-1.
Paul Lindsay, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said those results track with the committee’s experience in House races. In a Nevada special election for a vacant House seat last September, Republican Mark Amodei blunted Democratic attacks on the Ryan plan and won a decisive victory largely by calling Obama’s health reform plan as a threat to Medicare. “Why have Democrats been able to win every entitlement fight for the past 30 years?” Lindsay said. “Because Republicans didn’t have a response. This has turned it on its head.” Dozens of House Republican candidates are deploying similar arguments this year.
Stevens said he was unaware of the House GOP efforts. But the Romney campaign pressed its version of the argument in a recent ad that highlights images of white seniors and argues that Obama is diverting Medicare’s funding into “a massive new government program that’s not for you.” That pointed thrust has come as Romney is also running an ad, widely criticized by media fact-checkers, that accuses Obama of undermining work requirements for welfare recipients.
Together, this two-track Romney offensive echoes arguments between the parties from the Ronald Reagan-era, when Republicans gained ground among white voters—particularly those in the working-class—behind claims that social programs promoted dependency and transferred income from the working to the idle. “They are really trying to hammer the argument that Obama is taking away from ‘you’ to give it to ‘them,’ ” says Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO political director.
Stevens says that the welfare and Medicare arguments show that Romney is committed to “defending taxpayers,” but he rejects accusations that they are intended to provoke racial resentments. “That’s an absolutely false construct,” he says.
Arguments about the Romney camp’s intent in these ads will rage through November and beyond. What’s already clear, given Obama’s undiminished strength among minorities, is that to win Romney and Ryan will need to amass historic margins among white voters, especially older and blue-collar whites—and that in their effort to do so, they are betting heavily on the Medicare arguments that Ryan deployed on Wednesday night. Democrats are awaiting their chance to begin countering those claims at their convention next week. “This is part of the battle,” Greenberg says. “But I don’t think the battle is finished.”
This article appears in the August 30, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.