Will Medicare dominate this election?
By most accounts, Democrats are positively giddy over the selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential nominee in waiting, a euphoria born of their belief that the budget cuts and dramatic re-structuring of Medicare proposed by Ryan are indefensible and such a politically toxic brew that the GOP ticket is doomed.
Republicans, on the other hand, feel Democrats will experience a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment, one that can be exploited to effectively make a case that despite a near universal consensus that Medicare is sliding inexorably into bankruptcy, both President Obama and the Democratic Party have refused to offer any significant steps to arrest its descent into insolvency.
To succeed, Ryan and presidential candidate Mitt Romney must convince Americans that the Republican goal is to rescue Medicare for future beneficiaries, as opposed to Democrats who are willing to tinker at the margins, permit the larger issues to go untouched and leave it to future generations to resolve.
Democrats, they must argue, lack the political will to make the difficult decisions crucial to Medicare’s survival while Republicans have stood up to the challenge with a detailed plan to preserve the program for current participants and implement changes a decade in the future.
Romney and Ryan confront a daunting task, not merely to defend their courage in taking on the issue, but attempting to do so in the context of a political campaign, an environment not conducive to technocratic explanations of complex and emotional issues.
Voter perceptions are driven by 30-second television commercials by candidates of both parties and their supporters, utilizing bumper sticker language to make an accusatory or self-lauding point.
It is an atmosphere designed for failure for a candidate attempting to explain a far reaching re-structuring of a program like Medicare with its constituency of millions who like it just the way it is and who will resist any changes even though they won’t be affected by them.
Phrases like “private insurance options,” or “government insurance exchanges,’ or “unsustainable growth” or “premium subsidization” don’t fit easily into today’s campaign advertising, while rhetoric like “ending Medicare as we know it” accompanied by images of a wheelchair bound grandma being tossed off a cliff do.
The challenge for Romney/Ryan is to convince voters that the proposals offered by the President are so timid and his goals so unrealistic that, if enacted, they will exacerbate the jeopardy Medicare is already in, push any meaningful changes into the future and create further hardships for the beneficiaries.
Today’s senior citizens can be convinced their benefits will remain unchanged and the Republican plan preserves that to which they’ve become accustomed --- fee for service. Their ability to hand their Medicare card to their physician and receive treatment or to be assured that a hospital stay will be covered will not be diminished.
It is up to Romney/Ryan to convince the children of those seniors that when they reach Medicare eligibility, the program will be there, albeit it in significantly altered form but one which provides an adequate level of service and assistance.
They must also make the case that without an overhaul of the program, today’s under 55 years of age population will face great difficulty in obtaining health insurance coverage at a time when it is most needed.
The president and his party leaders professed an eagerness to engage in a debate over the Ryan plan, clearly convinced that the American people will decide that the budget cuts and Medicare revisions proposed by the Republicans are too radical to be acceptable.
Such a debate will also push into the background what is seen as the president’s greatest liability, a dismal anemic growth economy along with nearly four years’ of woeful employment and unemployment figures. Democrats see a definite benefit in moving the debate away from the economy and the president’s stewardship of it.
There is a certain refreshing element to be found in the possibility that a presidential election may be decided on the basis of policy differences and that an extensive and intensive dialogue on issues of great consequence marks a welcome and long overdue change from the campaigns the nation has been subjected to in the past.
No one, however, anticipates either party abandoning their television advertising efforts. They remain the most effective — and, in many ways, wasteful — method of reaching the greatest number of voters and, through repetition, driving a message into the collective psyche.
In selecting Ryan, the Romney campaign knew that it would take ownership of the Congressman’s spending and Medicare proposals, but obviously felt the benefits were ultimately worth the risk.
It is now their task to promote those perceived benefits and force Democrats to regret their failure to heed the be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning.
© Copyright 2012 Carl Golden; distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.