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Eric Thayer/The New York Times/Redux

Game changer

Campaign 2012 | The 2012 presidential campaign may be ending the Medicare debate as we know it

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

WASHINGTON-President Barack Obama's campaign against Paul Ryan began back in 2011. At a speech at Washington, D.C.'s George Washington University on April 13 of that year, Obama said Ryan's budget plan would "end Medicare as we know it."

"I believe it paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic," Obama said of a plan by Ryan that includes giving future Medicare recipients (Americans currently under 55) the option of buying private insurance with Medicare dollars.

Attending the speech that day at the president's own invitation: Ryan. From his front-row seat, the seven-term congressman often shook his head and jotted down notes as Obama attacked. When the speech ended, Ryan headed for the exit.

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"What we heard today was a political broadside from our campaigner in chief," Ryan said later. He admitted that he thought Obama's invitation was an olive branch to begin bipartisan talks on deficit reduction. Instead Ryan ended up as a prop for Obama's campaign rhetoric.

Fast-forward to this year and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's Aug. 11 announcement that Ryan would be his running mate: The Obama campaign, calling the pick "flawed" and "radical," echoed Obama's 16-month-old statement that Ryan's plan "would end Medicare as we know it."

Democrats thought the Ryan pick was a dream come true for them. It thrusts Medicare onto the campaign's center stage. Believing that it is a winning issue for them as long as they argue that Republicans want to abandon seniors, Democrats wasted no time launching their assault: Three days after the vice presidential announcement the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released robocalls attaching 50 Republican House members and candidates to Ryan's budget plan.

But by selecting Ryan, the intellectual behind the Republicans' approach to slashing deficits, Romney seems to be welcoming, even picking, this Medicare fight. Part of this confidence comes from the success Republicans had in a special House election last September in Nevada. There they field-tested a more aggressive approach to the Medicare issue. Republican Mark Amodei's victory, despite a heavy dose of Medicare scare tactics by the Democrats, has emboldened Republicans to take the strategy to the national level.

That strategy includes targeting Democrats on their healthcare overhaul and highlighting how it takes more than $700 billion from Medicare. Republicans will depict Democrats as the ones jeopardizing Medicare's future because of their healthcare law and because they have failed to come up with a viable counterproposal to Ryan's Medicare reforms. A Republican campaign committee has unleashed its own commercials, called "Mediscare," accusing Democrats of misleading voters by wrongly suggesting that Ryan's plan would affect current beneficiaries.

Danielle Doane, the director of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, said that, when 87 freshmen Republicans joined the House in 2010 (many after campaigning for entitlement reform), a growing number of lawmakers realized that the political landscape could be changing. Voters understand that Medicare, the leading driver of federal deficit growth, is on an unsustainable path. Republicans believe concerns over the national debt will trump Democratic attacks on the GOP's proposals.

If Republicans have indeed found a way to run on Medicare and win, that victory will hinge on Ryan's ability to make a valid case. "Having the one person who can articulate this view on the national stage is a great opportunity," Doane said. He has the ability to speak "reasonably, nicely, and positively" about the issue.

On the campaign trail, Ryan has been making his Medicare pitches with his own invited guest: his mother Betty Douglas Ryan, a Medicare recipient. "We want this debate," Ryan told a crowd of more than 1,000 in Oxford, Ohio, on Aug. 15. "We need this debate. And we will win this debate."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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