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As the special election NY-26 illustrated, the Democrats will come after the eventual Republican nominee for President with all guns blazing. In that race, according to most pundits, the defining issue was entitlement reform, specifically Medicare. Framed by those on the Left as a referendum on Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan, a more likely factor in the Republican loss was the presence of a third candidate who pulled votes from the Republican Party in that race. However, to deny the influence of the Medicare debate being played out in upstate New York would be a denial of reality. And it is a prequel to how the Democrats will play this issue in 2012. Lest anyone forget, remember George W. Bush and the uproar after his reelection in 2004 when he said he use his political capital to reform Social Security. One might say this was the beginning of the end for Bush- the point at which he completely jumped the shark.
Numerous articles have been written by various think tanks and publication about the possible effects of Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan. However, the most important point is this: The Ryan Plan is a proposal while Obamacare is the law. Much of the analysis of the Ryan Plan fails to mention or take into account the totality of Medicare reform in association with other entitlement reforms and tax reform. Also not mentioned is that the plan is phased in over a ten year transitional period. It does not affect any current or soon-to-be Medicare beneficiaries. The bottom line is that the population at large does not understand, nor do they care, about the differences between a “voucher” and “premium support.” Entitlement programs are notoriously complicated, not to mention the nuances of reform proposals. The reforms will necessarily demand hard choices along the way. Any amount of educational effort on the part of the Republicans will reach everyone’s ears, but register in few brains. It is not that the population at large lacks intelligence, but that the complexity of the issue is better left to the policy experts. In essence, I believe Obama and the Democrats will adopt the same posture in the 2012 campaign as they did in NY-26’s campaign especially if the economy remains stagnantly dismal. That election was the starting point of poking and prodding the boundaries of what they can get away with regarding Medicare.
For example, DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has asserted that under the Ryan plan, seniors with pre-existing conditions would be denied health insurance by private companies. She also mentioned that future beneficiaries would be abandoned under the Ryan Plan. The assertions were so false that even liberal rags like the Washington Post and Factcheck.org took her to task on these assertions. As the supporters of the plan have correctly noted, the Ryan Plan changes the structure of Medicare; it does not abolish Medicare. Regardless, the Democratic Party and their cronies in the unions and special interest groups will air television commercials depicting Republicans running granny off the cliff in their wheelchairs.
Obviously, the visceral attacks have a greater effect than educational efforts. Actually, the educational efforts should be more directed and subtle and better played out by the policy wonks and those who pound out the details in the halls of Congress. In effect, to get ahead of this story and redefine the issue in terms the voting population can understand, the Republican Party has to reclaim Medicare reform as a campaign issue without letting the Democratic Party define the issue for us. In order to counter the negative advertisements and over-the-top accusations from the likes of Chairman Wasserman Schultz and liberal, Democratic mouthpieces like the lame stream media, this involves a three-pronged attack. First, conservative attack dogs must be unleashed while distancing the Party from them. People like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and others- people who have large listening audiences and readerships- need to lead with the visceral attacks on Democratic visceral attacks. This also includes conservative PACs and 527’s. If Democratic Party groups can show their ugly commercials, conservatives have to repay in kind with equally ugly commercials showing the very real effects of Obamacare- a law, not a working proposal- on senior citizens. Here, I would argue that Republican/conservative mouthpieces like Sarah Palin would serve a stronger role than if she were a Presidential candidate.
Second, the RNC and the Republican Party needs to reframe the Ryan Plan as a working proposal- a broad framework for necessary reform while emphasizing that Democratic policy of “kicking the can down the road” will not suffice. That is, Obama can propose commissions and glossed over reforms that actually do nothing, but in the interim, the entire system is teetering on the edge of insolvency. That scenario- do nothing, or raise taxes- serves no one- current or future Medicare beneficiaries. That is the alternative that must be argued. Additionally, the RNC needs to be the go-between with the senior citizen advocacy groups like AARP and the National Senior Citizen Law Center, etc. In short, the RNC must be the educational arm for Medicare reform. Finally, those involved directly in Medicare reform in Congress- people like Paul Ryan and others- need to stay above the fray and argue their position from one of intelligence. The recently reported behind-closed-doors debate between Ryan and Obama over Medicare and demagoguery is all well and good. However, it must be remembered that it was Paul Ryan who made a positive name for himself when he publicly took on Obama during the health care debate. When it comes to actual policy formulation and intelligence, Ryan runs circles around Obama and leaves the President a blubbering fool.
To get ahead of this story and reclaim it, the Ryan plan needs to be presented as the starting point of a grand design, but necessarily the ultimate end game. If nothing else, the Republican Party can show a willingness to debate the issue in a mature, adult way- something foreign to Washington political discourse and an area where Wasserman Schultz is at an obvious disadvantage. Secondly, they can show a willingness to compromise with Democrats where necessary- an area where the Democratic Party has an obvious disadvantage. Finally, it can show that the Republican Party is a party of ideas and that Democrats are the true “party of no” when it comes to true reforms, not the tried-and-failed, tax-and-spend policies of their party. Other than increasing taxes and hypothetical savings through fraud and waste elimination, Democrats have no new ideas. The subject of entitlement reform in general is a touchy subject for the Democratic Party as much as it is for the Republican Party. Whether Obama likes it or not, it is the 800 pound elephant in the political room. Obama can ignore it, he can study it, form commissions around it, and kick it down the road. But as he and the Democratic Party do so, the clock is ticking and the money is draining. Emphasis on this fact is the ultimate scare tactic that the Republican Party must emphasize and use against the Democratic Party. It is time to reclaim Medicare reform for the Republican Party.