the national interest

Do Republicans Want to Cut Medicare?

FISHERSVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 04: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) and his running mate Rep Paul Ryan (R-WI) wave to supporters during a campaign rally at the Augusta Expoland on October 4, 2012 in Fishersville, Virginia. One day after the first Presidential debate, Mitt Romney spoke to the CPAC before heading to Virginia to campaign with his running mate Rep Paul Ryan (R-WI). (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

Continuing the theme of Mitt Romney Silver Linings Playbook retrospectives, kicked off by strategist Stuart Stevens’s triumphant op-ed about his candidate’s great successes, former Romney aides Pete Wehner and Dan Senor* offer their contribution today to the burgeoning literature of Romney revisionism. Headlined “The Death Of ‘Mediscare,’” Wehner and Senor argue that Romney — through his bold choice of Paul Ryan — blazed a path for his party to follow by taking on Democrats on their signature issue and winning:

Republicans were warned that if their nominee made even sympathetic noises about Medicare reform, it would be politically poisonous. Mitt Romney, to his great credit, ignored the warnings.

Fighting Democrats to a draw on Medicare — including the fact that Republicans retained comfortable control of the House — may well be seen one day as a key moment in American politics, when “Mediscare” attacks finally lost their potency. The campaign showed Republicans that it pays to deal with attacks head-on rather than run from them, that treating the American people in a mature fashion pays dividends, and that calm, persistent and well-reasoned arguments can overcome demagoguery.

It is true that Medicare played a fairly small role in the campaign, and that predictions by some pundits that Ryan’s Medicare proposal would prove fatal were not born out. But did Romney pull this off by reasoning with Americans about the need to reform Medicare? Here’s the message the ticket used:

What they did here was run to Barack Obama’s left on the issue. Here was their message: Obama wants to cut Medicare and give the money to other people, people who are not you. Republicans will keep every cent in the program. The only reference to change is a clause in a sentence promising to “strengthen the plan for the next generation,” which simultaneously assures that any changes will not happen for years and years and casts those changes as something other than a funding cut.

The Republican positioning on Medicare has set the tone for the current budget impasse. Obama is asking for $1.6 trillion in higher tax revenue. Republicans are demanding more spending cuts, but they won’t say how much they want, let alone what specifically they will cut. The current party thinking on Medicare, sanctified by Romney and Ryan, has defined itself as matching or even outspending Obama on Medicare for anybody aged 55 and up. That would lock out any budget savings at all for the next decade, and make any savings roll in extremely slowly afterward.

Republicans could present a plan like that in negotiations — deep Medicare cuts that don’t start to take effect until 2022. But, since the two sides have already cut discretionary spending to the bone, that would necessarily require that any deal necessarily have far more tax hikes than spending cuts over the next decade. But Republicans don’t want that, either. It’s not clear that their goals can be expressed at all, at least not in arithmetically coherent form.

Hence their current demand that Obama formulate a proposed slate of entitlement spending cuts on their behalf. Right now Republicans seem to need Obama to conduct both sides of the negotiation.

* This post was corrected to fix a spelling error. Dan Senor was originally incorrectly referred to as Den Senor.

Do Republicans Want to Cut Medicare?