Medicare, the Generous Geriatrics, and the Republicans' Electoral Strategy

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

[Update: Professor Dorf pointed me to an NPR story, which reported that Paul Ryan was a major architect of George W. Bush's ill-fated Social Security privatization plan, which I discuss below. No surprise that Ryan's fingerprints would be all over that failed plan. It does, however, make the political miscalculation that I describe in this post even more difficult to fathom.]

This week, a political firestorm is engulfing a veteran Republican Congressman who seems to think that women have super-smart uteruses. As the comedian Andy Borowitz imagined Todd Akin's reasoning: "It’s almost like Spider-Man’s ‘spidey sense,’ if you will, except the tingling goes on down in the lady parts." Even the national Republican Party and its funding affiliates (including Karl Rove's group) have jumped ship, leaving the party's defiant nominee for a U.S. Senate seat to fend for himself. (Amazingly -- and this tells us more than we would ever want to believe about U.S. politics in 2012 -- there is still a chance that he could win!)

This is, however, beginning to look like more than simply the political story of the week. The story is both comic gold and a potential long term public-relations disaster, making it unsurprising that the Republicans are on the run. Many commentators are starting to notice that there is no difference at all between Akin's policy views and those of the mainstream of the Republican Party (VP pick Paul Ryan prominently included). The danger for Republicans is that this is going to start to unfold like Pat Buchanan's gleeful initiation of the "culture war" back at the 1996 Republican National Convention. Swing voters might not think of themselves as being liberal on social issues. They are, however, notably leery of extremism on such issues (especially religiously-based extremism) -- but only if they notice it. The Akin affair threatens to make all of that unpopular stuff salient.

The Republicans are in an almost identical political position with respect to Medicare -- except that the party's leaders really brought the Medicare problem upon themselves, by choosing Ryan for the ticket. (I realize the Mitt Romney supposedly chose Ryan. I am hardly the only person who is not buying that one.) Ryan, after all, is the Republican who is directly identified with the most radical plan ever proposed to "end Medicare as we know it." There is even a track record showing how unpopular Ryan's plan is, because it was the House's passage of the 2011 version of his budget proposal that led to the loss of a previously-safe Republican U.S. House seat near Buffalo, in a special election last year.

After Ryan's plan passed the House last Spring, I wrote a post here on Dorf on Law, describing the doomed political strategy that the Republicans used to try to sell that plan. Even after the loss of that House seat, however, they are still pushing the same failed strategy. Specifically, Ryan and Romney (and all of their surrogates) are trying to hide behind the idea that everyone who is currently at least 55 years old will be unaffected by Ryan's proposed change to Medicare. The idea is that older voters -- who are the least supportive of President Obama -- can be bought off, happily going back to their selfish lives, safe in the knowledge that they got theirs, Jack. The heck with the kids and grandkids!

This is, of course, not only breathtakingly cynical, but also utterly at odds with the supposed concern about "our children and grandchildren" that supposedly underlies Romney/Ryan's professed concern about deficits and debt. (Never mind that their proposals would not, in fact, reduce deficits. Everyone JUST KNOWS that Ryan is an anti-deficit, anti-debt guy. And that is all that matters, apparently.) The Romney/Ryan message is now: "Hey, post-Boomers! We are going to start dismantling government programs that were created by your greedy, self-obsessed parents and grandparents. But we're not going to take any of it away from them. We're so concerned about not burdening you with debt that we're going to take things away from you. Oh, and we promise that the numbers add up."

As I discussed in my Dorf on Law column last May, however, the other puzzling aspect of this political strategy is that the "only under 55's need worry" strategy had failed before. When George W. Bush's second term began in 2005, his administration's big domestic initiative (having survived their "accountability moment," in Dick Cheney's immortal framing) was to try to partially privatize the Social Security program. Then as now, the Republicans tried to neutralize the outrage of older Americans by assuring them that the consequences of the plan would not fall on current retirees, but only on their kids and grandkids.

It did not work. Even with full control of both Houses of Congress, and a very aggressive White House, the supposedly Greedy Geezers turned out to be quite concerned about preserving a program that they like a lot, on behalf of future retirees. (In addition to the label "Generous Geriatrics," which I used in the title of today's post, I also came up with:
Considerate Codgers, Equitable Elderly, and Honorable Oldsters.) At least in retrospect, it now appears that the idea never gained any serious traction at all -- again, even though the Republicans tried to neutralize voters of a certain age.

The one thing we know, however, is that there are some very savvy political operatives at work on behalf of the Republican Party. Looking at the history of the Bush Social Security fiasco, as well as the NY special election from last summer (which was completely turned upside down by the Ryan Plan -- capital "R," capital "P"), how did they come up with the idea that running Ryan for VP was a good electoral strategy? And once they convinced themselves that it was a good idea, why did they think that the divide-and-conquer strategy would work this time?

And so far, by the way, it is not working. Today's New York Times carries a front-page article that describes dreams-come-true-for-Democrats polling numbers. Voters by a clear margin trust Obama over Romney to protect Medicare. (In a world where voters too often seem not to be paying attention, it is heartening to see that most voters are ignoring Romney/Ryan's Orwellian relabeling of "vouchers" as plans to "save" and "protect" Medicare. Whatever else one might think of Ryan's plan, it is not "Medicare" in anything but name.) Moreover, the polls show that Medicare is an extremely important issue for voters, especially in swing states.

Again, however, this was all very predictable. When Ryan was announced as the VP pick, Democrats salivated. Even when Romney quickly started claiming that he was not endorsing Ryan's plans (leading to my "Double Etch-a-Sketch" description of the Republican campaign), it seemed to be beyond wishful thinking to imagine that they could run away from Medicare as a defining issue in the campaign.

Which brings us back to the question: What were they thinking? A couple of possibilities come to mind:

(1) Republican strategists are more confident than ever that they can "work the refs" in the press, forcing them to run "balanced" discussions of policy disputes where the facts are all on one side. I discussed some aspects of this all-too-familiar false equivalence in my post last Thursday. Yesterday brought another juicy example. One of the Times's Business reporters wrote a mostly-news commentary about the inevitability of the dreaded "rationing" of health care, and the difficulty of coming up with plans to reduce long-term growth of health care costs.

The author wanted to talk about how the two political parties were both in the wrong. How to do so? Well, Romney was "
brazenly misleading" in his claim that OBama will cut medical services to the elderly. True. And Obama? "But the response of President Obama’s campaign also aimed to stoke voters’ fears. It stressed — rightly — that the plan to curb Medicare costs proposed last year by Representative Paul D. Ryan, Mr. Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, would add thousands of dollars to older Americans’ out-of-pocket expenditures. Yet it ignored Mr. Ryan’s recent efforts to soften the plan."

Are you kidding?! Obama is, by this reasoning, in the wrong because he is holding the Romney campaign to what Ryan actually wrote (and what his party actually passed in the House of Representatives), without going out of its way to note that R/R are now claiming to "soften" the plan. Of course, none of that "softening" is anything more than repetition of those Orwellian labels; but even if there were some election-year softening of the actual details of the proposal, why should the Obama team take Romney at his word that this is not an election year conversion of convenience? It is not as if Romney has a consistent record on, oh, anything.

So, one possibility is that the Romney strategists simply believe that they can get the mainstream press and commentariat to go easy on (among other things) the Ryan Plan for Medicare. What else might be at work?

(2) The process-oriented view is that the ill-fated Bush privatization plan for Social Security happened after an election, not before. This would normally have made it easier to imagine a win for Bush, with (flimsy) claims of "mandate" in hand, and with the next mid-term election as far in the future as things get. A honeymoon period could have resulted in a surprising win for privatization, one might have thought.

Romney's handlers, however, might be thinking that the problem in 2005 was that there was only one thing at stake. In an election year, maybe they can get an anti-Medicare ticket elected by virtue of the weak economy and the flurry of other issues and non-issues surrounding a Presidential election. This requires one to believe that older voters -- who are evidently not responsive to the "not over 55" dodge, and who vote in large numbers -- will not think about Medicare when they get to the voting booth.

That might still work, but it is highly risky, at best. Any other explanations?

(3) The Tea Party wanted Ryan. The curse of the Tea Party movement (from the standpoint of the Republican establishment) is that it has shown itself to be completely willing to go with purity over pragmatism. The current Senate could easily have been 50-50 -- and only one Ben Nelson defection away from Republican control -- if not for the Tea Partiers in Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware. Ryan is their guy. That he is an extremist is his appeal, in their eyes, not a problem.

It is, in other words, quite possible that -- as much as they hate President Obama -- the people who really run the show in the Republican Party these days are willing to lose this election in the name of having a man on the ticket who truly, truly believes what they believe. The attempts to make Ryan seem attractive are inevitable (if implausible), and the minimal backing off from the extreme rhetoric of his very recent past is probably annoying to the true believers.

Even so, this is a party that is willing to put everything behind a guy who is directly identified with dismantling Medicare. Their best attempt at mitigating the damage is to rely on a failed strategy of neutralizing elderly voters by buying them off. Obama might still lose this election, but he really must be thanking the heavens for opponents like these.