Telling Old Folks the Truth

I think we’ve all come to realize that the biggest Republican dilemma during the fiscal talks–as it’s been under the surface for years now–how to reconcile the fundamental desire to undermine Medicare as a safety-net program with the GOP’s heavy reliance on older voters–and its associated habit of Mediscaring seniors with claims of trying to save them from horrible cuts to the program by Democrats.

In an interesting if misleading piece for The Hill, Sam Baker and Elise Viebeck frame this as a choice between Romney’s and Ryan’s approach to Medicare–and suggest that the latter is beginning to prevail among congressional Republicans, buttressing the case for loud-and-proud advocacy of Medicare “reforms.”

During the campaign, candidate Romney repeatedly hammered President Obama for cutting $716 billion from Medicare as part of his signature healthcare law. Romney pledged to repeal those cuts in a break from his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, had preserved Obama’s Medicare cuts in two consecutive budget proposals that repealed the rest of the Affordable Care Act. Ryan is now back at work crafting his next budget, and Republicans on his committee say the $716 billion in Medicare cuts will likely survive….

Romney’s rhetoric rankled some conservatives and supporters of Ryan’s more dramatic Medicare overhaul, who feared Romney was making it harder to make badly needed spending cuts in the future.

When pressed about their differing positions during the campaign, Romney and Ryan simply said that because Romney was at the top of the ticket, his approach to Medicare would carry the day.

Now, though, Republicans are largely casting off Romney as a failed candidate with no real claim to the party’s political or intellectual future, while Ryan is still seen as a political star who could run again for national office. And among his fellow Republicans, Ryan’s approach to Medicare is also back on top.

Well, that’s sorta right. But putting aside the $716 billion, Ryan’s budget, like Republican “entitlement reform” proposals from time immemorial, grandfathered seniors and near-seniors. The implicit plea to old folks was that they’d get their Medicare benefits at the expense of the free-loading, free-loving, slacker generations behind them–not to mention those people whose “welfare” benefits would be cut much more significantly. And notwithstanding details, the unambiguous Romney-Ryan campaign message was that the real threat to seniors was Obamacare, which would directly or indirectly redirect tax dollars from current Medicare benefits to “a massive new government program that it not for you,” as one famous campaign ad unsubtly put it.

This “generational war over resources” message didn’t begin in 2012, either. It was a big part of the Tea Party message in 2009 and 2010, dramatized most vividly by Sarah Palin’s “death panels” claim, which suggested Obama wanted to kill off Medicare beneficiaries in order to use that money for his nefarious socialist schemes (presumably benefitting those people).

Now it’s entirely true that the problem with destroying Medicare’s original structure while protecting current beneficiaries is (as Jonathan Chait has pointed out) is that it eliminates most opportunities for short-range budget savings from Medicare. And that’s why Republicans want Democrats to be the ones to offer Medicare cuts that are more immediate than anything in the Ryan budget. But it’s not as though a brief bout of medagoguery by Romney is now giving way to Paul Ryan’s honest truth-telling to seniors. Pitting one group of entitlement beneficiaries against others has been part of the GOP game plan all along, and remains so today.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.