Ramesh Ponnuru Wonders Why Team Obama Isn’t Playing the Medicare Card

by Reihan Salam

Why hasn’t the president launched fierce attacks against Mitt Romney on the (correct) assumption that Romney and his Republican allies intend to reform the Medicare program for future generations? Ramesh Ponnuru is puzzled — and so am I:

Obama’s best bet is probably to hit Romney again and again over his plans for Social Security and Medicare. That’s a big issue: Nothing Romney is proposing would be more consequential. And it’s an issue where Obama can draw on strong public sentiments. Most people believe the programs need reform. But in a Pew poll in 2011, Americans favored preserving benefits to reducing deficits by almost 2-to-1. By 56 percent to 33 percent, they worried more about Social Security benefit cuts than about tax increases. In a March 2012 poll, just 26 percent of the public favored the Republican idea of changing Medicare so that beneficiaries pick a health plan and get a “fixed sum of money” to meet the costs.

The most obvious conclusion is that the Obama campaign intends to launch just such an attack, but late enough to make it difficult for the Romney campaign to mount an effective counterattack. When Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry condemned Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, many wondered whether this was useful for the Romney campaign — better to air out the critique early on and devise effective replies, etc. — or if dragging out the Bain Capital conversation would prove extremely damaging. The intra-GOP attacks may well have undermined Romney’s favorability ratings for a time, yet in hindsight it does seem as though Team Romney profited from having the time to craft a more effective message about private equity. And whether or not the counterattacks were terribly effective, it seems plausible that the media is less interested in covering “old news” than “new news.” The fact that a number of Democrats defended private equity in general and Bain Capital in particular was “new news” that helped drown out the “old news.” 

So what happens if President Obama and his allies launch an expensive, coordinated attack on Medicare reform in late summer or early fall? Democrats who’d be troubled by attacks on entitlement reform exist, but they are few and far between, particularly because the demonization of Rep. Paul Ryan on the left has created conceptual distance between the idea of entitlement reform in the abstract and the kind of bipartisan structural reforms Ryan has championed. Some Democrats might found a “Mediscare” campaign embarrassing or discomfiting, just as some found attacks on Bain Capital embarrassing or discomfiting, but they won’t have much of an opportunity to confuse the issue come September.

Or perhaps I’m attributing too much strategic sophistication to these campaigns. Regardless, it does seem as though the Romney campaign should think rigorously about how to neutralize itself against attacks on its entitlement reform proposals.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.