Paul Ryan delivers the speech of his political life on Wednesday evening, but regardless of how it’s ultimately received by the pundits and the public, the vice presidential nominee has already scored a major victory.
His budget blueprints, though controversial when he first introduced them, have morphed into the intellectual backbone of the Republican Party. More significantly, he has made once-incendiary ideas, such as reforming Medicare and overhauling the tax code, less radioactive to the point where these are now central issues for discussion on the campaign trail—ones that the Obama campaign now must address, too.
That’s a huge political success in and of itself and, perhaps, the win most dear to Ryan. Before he introduced his House budget this spring, he told National Journal that pushing forward politically sensitive ideas such as entitlement reform was his biggest priority. More important than, say, the Republicans winning the presidency?
“Yeah,” he said. “I think we have to do everything we can to change the politics of this. The way I look at it, leaders don’t follow the polls. Leaders try to change the polls, and we have an obligation to try to change the polls to get the country ready for this moment.”
Opinions are starting to shift toward Ryan’s belief of an impending fiscal crisis, even if polls show a lack of consensus on the best way to deal with government spending. In January 2007, just 53 percent of people polled by the Pew Research Center considered the budget deficit a top priority for lawmakers. By January 2012, that number jumped to 69 percent.
“Well, in theory, people want to see something done,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “There’s still a lot of resistance to sacrifice.”
The same goes for the polling on Medicare, the popular health care program for seniors. In February 2012, according to polling done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 70 percent of respondents wanted to keep Medicare as is. By this summer, a Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post poll showed that 58 percent of adults preferred Medicare to remain the same—a shift in sentiment that the Kaiser pollster, Mollyann Brodie, attributed to a change in the way the question was asked.
Still, the shift suggests an opening exists for both campaigns to move the Medicare conversation based on the way they frame and message the issue. “The argument is resonating with the public more, especially those looking for a change,” Brodie says.
The campaign’s focus on fiscal issues has also exposed the generational differences in the way the public views Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the deficit—an opening that savvy politicians like Ryan can exploit. Baby boomers, along with the older generation, overwhelming prefer to keep the government programs as is. But what about their kids?
Fewer than half of millennials say they want to avoid any future cuts to the programs, and 86 percent of them surveyed by Pew in June say they would be fine with moving Social Security to a program that allows young workers to invest in private accounts. “The generational politics is part of the game these days,” Kohut says.
The irony is that Republicans typically do a better job than Democrats of getting out the elderly vote, so it’s gamble for the Romney-Ryan ticket to base part of its platform on overhauling programs dear to seniors. But it’s also a long-term bet that up-and-coming Republicans will be able to shift the discussion to make Medicare changes appealing to younger voters, while attempting to convince seniors and those near retirement that their benefits will be preserved.
Make no mistake: Despite the fact that Ryan is winning hearts and minds in his party, his proposal to reshape Medicare remains a mammoth X factor in the race. Public opposition to privatizing Medicare hasn’t seemed to harm Ryan and Romney’s popularity with the electorate—at least so far.
That may be because voters have larger concerns: high unemployment, a bleak housing market, and prolonged economic insecurity, with no clear solutions offered by either political party. Ryan’s proposals for deep spending cuts and even deeper tax cuts may not be the economic salve that voters ultimately seek, but it’s clear that they are listening.