In Rep. Paul Ryan’s very first week as presumptive GOP vice-presidential nominee, the distinct change in President Obama’s campaign rhetoric—along with an explosion of media debate over Medicare restructuring that Ryan championed last year in the US House of Representatives—made it hard to doubt that the 2012 presidential race has now been cast as “the Medicare election.”
Of course, for such a casting to be complete, Governor Romney (who is probably now feeling a bit like a running mate) would have to accept this fundamental reframing of the campaign debate. This he did, in a new television ad and in two August 14 Ohio campaign speeches—asserting that Obama cut more than $700 billion from Medicare in his 2010 health care reform bill.
So the Medicare fight is on. And many analysts think it was foolish for Romney to engage. As recently as last week, Romney was free to focus upon and attack the policies of an incumbent President with a current job approval rating of 45 percent and a disapproval rating of 49 percent (Gallup). This week, Romney finds himself forced, or motivated, to defend the budget policies of Ryan, who’s an aggressive ideologue from a Congress with only 16-percent job approval ratings and 78-percent disapproval ratings (Gallup).
Ryan’s Medicare proposal—which would have partly privatized the program with a voucher system for some Medicare recipients—was just one part of his 2011 House budget plan, which included a hefty reduction in the income tax rate of the highest-paid Americans and large cuts in federal spending. Romney himself was slow to endorse all the pieces.
While these pieces aren’t shocking as a general conservative economic plan, CNN columnist David Frum makes some perceptive points about why they might be the wrong fix for the woes most voters face today.
On August 13, he wrote, “Most economists would draw a distinction between the government’s fiscal problems over the medium term and the economy’s problems in the near term. The economy’s near-term problems can be traced to the housing crisis.
“Americans assumed crushing levels of debt in the 2000s to buy expensive homes, homes they assumed would continue to rise in price forever. In 2007, household debt relative to income peaked at the highest level since 1928. (Uh oh.) When the housing market crashed, consumers were stranded with unsustainable debts, and until those debts are reduced, consumers will drastically cut back their spending. As consumers cut back, businesses lose revenue. As businesses lose revenue, they fire employees. As employees lose their jobs, their purchasing power is reduced. As purchasing power is lost throughout the economy, housing prices tumble again.”
Frum observes that while Ryan’s plans include valid ideas for long-term government reduction, “They do not respond to the most immediate and urgent problem: prolonged mass unemployment caused by heavy household debt.”
All are great points for debate. As Frum notes, it’s usually economists who debate them. It’s not clear whether Ryan can impress a debt-ridden voter in 2012 with a promise to fight deficits, or whether Obama can impress that same voter with an alternative.
Nevertheless, Romney, in the new Romney/Ryan phase of the election, appears to be in a position of increased vulnerability. A summer of campaigning by Obama had at least partial success in painting Romney as the man from Bain Capital who destroyed American jobs.
Now Romney has linked himself to an unpopular Congress, not simply by choosing a running mate from Congress, but by choosing House Budget Committee Chair Ryan, whose record almost screams, “I am Congress!” and whose policies Romney has now fully embraced.
In 2011, when Ryan was promoting changes to Medicare, two different polls (CBS News and NBC/Wall Street Journal) showed 76 percent of Americans opposed to “cuts” or, in the case of the CBS poll, “significant cuts” to Medicare spending. When a June 2011 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll detailed the voucher plan, 47 percent of respondents felt “unsure,” 31 percent said it was “bad,” and 22 percent said it was “good.”
The uncertainty—and the majority disapproval among those who are certain—is an advantage for Obama.
When Gallup asked voters in April 2012 who they thought would do or recommend the right thing for the economy, Obama led the pack with 50 percent saying he would do a “great deal” or “fair amount.” Romney was second at 42 percent. The GOP leaders in Congress were last at 38 percent.
Today, incumbent Obama is on the attack, calling Ryan the “architect” of a plan “to end Medicare as we know it.”
Romney didn’t need this fight, and he could have avoided it.