It would be easy to attribute the Romney campaign’s firm push for their candidate’s Medicare reform (and assertive attack on the administration’s raid of the program to pay for Obamacare) to his choice of a running mate. But the bold pre-emptive strike we’ve seen this week, which looks likely to seriously blunt the Mediscare offensive the Democrats were hoping for in the fall, seems to be at least as much Romney as Ryan. The large ad buy informing seniors about Obamacare’s raid against Medicare, Romney’s side-by-side comparison of his and the president’s approaches to Medicare on a white board for reporters, his contrasts of the two and arguments for his own plan throughout the week (like this), and the campaign’s sending Ryan to Florida to make a forthright case to seniors today all suggest an ambitious desire to take away from the president what he might have thought would be his strongest issue, and to leave him with little of substance to say going forward.
The idea is surely not that Romney would win the election on Medicare, but that if the issue is basically neutralized and Obama can’t distract voters from the economy and jobs through demagogic Medicare attacks, then the election would have to be fought on the president’s economic record—and that’s a fight that could hand Romney the presidency.
It’s not just Obamacare’s raid on Medicare but also the nature of the Romney Medicare proposal—which entirely exempts current seniors and averts any cost-shifting to future ones through a competitive bidding process among insurers—that allows for this aggressive posture, and it’s worth remembering that although we tend to call this version of premium-support the “Ryan-Wyden” reform, Romney had actually proposed it before Ryan and Wyden did, and before it was incorporated into the House Republican budget. His similar approach to Social Security (exempting today’s seniors and those near retirement and saving the system for younger Americans through a fairly modest set of reforms) should serve Romney well too should the Democrats seek refuge in scaring seniors on that front. There too, Romney seeks to match the Democrats on what they take to be their ground and so force them to fight on his. The Ryan pick is probably best understood as a further element of this approach, rather than the source of it. And like the rest of the strategy, it is a very good sign about Romney.
If the past week has been any indication, the Democrats are not well prepared to deal with this strategy. I doubt they wanted to spend a week explaining why and how they cut Medicare for current seniors while still failing to avert the program’s future collapse. They’re still struggling to explain that, and with their first few excuses—we didn’t do it, Ryan did it too, they’re not real cuts, and seniors don’t really need those benefits we cut—mostly fallen by the wayside in a matter of days, they have turned to abject double counting, insisting that even though they spent the money elsewhere (on Obamacare), their Medicare cuts nonetheless increase the future solvency of the Medicare program. As the CBO could tell them (and has), the money they cut “would be used to pay for other spending and therefore would not enhance the ability of the government to pay for future Medicare benefits.”
The point of criticizing these cuts to pay for Obamacare is not to say that Medicare spending should not fall, but that there are different ways to reduce spending on Medicare: Those that cannot escape the logic of central planning and administrative pricing must involve crude benefit cuts and price controls that in the long run only increase the inefficiency of the program and so exacerbate its troubles, as we have seen for decades. Those that seek efficiency through competitive pricing and consumer choice hold out the promise of reducing costs without reducing access or quality of care. This week has shown that the latter may be better politics, as well as better economics.
The longer they flail, the less likely the Democrats are to be able to effectively bring up Medicare themselves in this election season, and the more likely Romney is to keep voters focused on the economy in the fall—and therefore focused on what they like least about the incumbent president. It’s easy to see what Romney will be running on in September and October. But what will Obama be running on?