Ten years ago, John Diullio wrote a letter recounting his experiences in the Bush White House. It was horrifying. Unlike the Clinton administration, which “drowned in policy intellectuals and teemed with knowledgeable people interested in making government work,” he found the Bush administration dominated by “Mayberry Machiavellis — staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible.”
Diullio’s letter comes to mind when trying to assess the Romney campaign’s attempt to win the debate over Medicare. It’s obviously unfair to compare a message campaign devised in the heat of an election with efforts to craft actual policy. Yet it’s difficult to tell the difference between a deliberate messaging strategy of trying to muddy the waters and actually not knowing yourself what the hell you are talking about.
Mitt Romney’s current plan is to run a generational war on Medicare. President Obama has taken money out of the Medicare budget to help pay for universal health insurance. (For instance, he’ll spend less reimbursing hospitals for covering uninsured patients in the emergency room because there will be fewer uninsured patients.) Romney will undo this outrage!
"I think the $716 billion that our seniors have paid for should stay with our seniors' program. It should be restored to the Medicare trust fund ... to make its solvency last longer," he said.
Except that restoring those spending cuts would actually make the Medicare Trust Fund go insolvent sooner. Now, the Trust Fund is an accounting device, and the accurate measure of any change is how it affects the government’s budget as a whole. But in this case, promising to undue the funding mechanisms from the Affordable Care Act means that Romney can’t save any money this way. Romney is promising a tax rate cut, offset by unspecified loophole closings that can’t add up, plus jacking up defense spending. Now he’s going to leave Social Security and Medicare alone, and balance the budget within a few years? Utterly fanciful, as Josh Barro notes.
Meanwhile, Ryan today defends his budget’s decision to keep in place the dreaded Obama Medicare robbery:
First of all, those are in the baseline, he put those cuts in. Second of all, we voted to repeal Obamacare repeatedly, including those cuts. I voted that way before the budget, I voted that way after the budget. So when you repeal all of Obamacare what you end up doing is that repeals that as well. In our budget we've restored a lot of that. It gets a little wonky but it was already in the baseline. We would never have done it in the first place. We voted to repeal the whole bill.
Ryan’s argument is that they had a different vote to repeal the cuts, and Obama put in the cuts in the first place, so there. And yes, they had a different vote to repeal the entire Affordable Care Act. But the actual budget they voted on kept the cuts in place — the cuts that Republicans now say will create massive, unjustifiable pain for the elderly. And why did they do that? To make the numbers in their budget add up, or better maintain the appearance of adding up.
If they actually think the Medicare cuts in Obamacare are terrible, then their budget should reflect the cost of undoing them. The fact that it's "in the baseline" is neither here nor there. Policies you inherit that you don't like are in the baseline. That's what a baseline is.
Also today, Karl Rove repeats his party’s message. Republicans are going to win the Medicare fight! Try to follow the bouncing ball here. First Rove insists that the Ryan budget doesn’t cut Medicare because the dollar sums in the Medicare budget will rise:
For one thing, the GOP doesn't cut Medicare spending. This fiscal year, Medicare outlays will total $503 billion. Even under the House GOP budget — considered the most parsimonious plan out there — Medicare spending would be $855 billion annually 10 years from now.
This is a pretty dumb way to define a “cut.” If it costs more money to provide the same service from year to year, then holding the budget below that level reduces the level of service, and is thus a cut. But suppose for the sake of argument that Rove’s silly method is sound. Here is the very next paragraph of his column:
Mr. Romney also has advantages in the contest with Mr. Obama. The president's legislation cuts Medicare by $716 billion to pay for ObamaCare.
Didn’t Rove just tell us, one paragraph earlier, that it’s not a cut if the nominal dollar total you’re spending goes up? Now he’s using a definition of “cut” to attack Obama that he had just assailed a few sentences before.
I’d attribute this all to a grand, venal scheme, but I suspect doing so would overestimate the level of cognition at work here. You probably had a bunch of Republicans in a room throwing out any and all talking points to defend their plan, some of which make sense on their own terms, some of which make no sense, and which add up to utter gibberish.
I’d also point out that, in his letter, Diullio actually singled out Rove as one of the better-informed, and even “wonky,” denizens of the Bush White House. This is pretty frightening.