If the first day and a half or so of the Republican National Convention is any indication, the 2012 confab is going to be remarkably light on anything approaching substance. Even Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) struggled to introduce anything resembling a vision or idea in his much-anticipated but mostly self-congratulatory speech last night.
One of the problems is simply that the GOP is doubling down on being an echo of the Democrats rather than a full-throated Goldwaterian alternative to the status quo. You can see that in their actual budget proposals (to the degree that they exist): In a decade's time, Obama hopes the government is spending about $2 trillion more than it is now; the GOP Congress wants to spend $1 trillion more. In a country that is borrowing almost 40 cents of every dollar it spends, this is splitting hairs.
Nowhere is the Republican interest in echoing Democratic big government ideas clearer than on the issue of Medicare, the nation's health-care entitlement for the elderly.
Here's Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster who along with former Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) has created something called "Resurgent Republic." He's talking with the Washington Examiner's Byron York:
Ayres found that by targeting Obamacare's Medicare cuts, and by presenting the Romney-Ryan plan as an effort to "preserve and protect Medicare for current recipients and future generations," Republicans can essentially tie the score between those who side with the GOP and those who side with Democrats. And for Republicans, long intimidated by "Mediscare" campaigns, having a Medicare argument of their own is a huge improvement from years past.
"Is that a different message for Republicans? Yes, it is," says Ayres. "Is it an uphill climb for Republicans? Yes, it is. Does it give Republicans a fighting chance to get a draw or perhaps even tilt the playing field in our direction? Yes, it does."
Ayres pushes the line that Obama has slated over $700 billion in cuts to Medicare in the context of health care reform, so really voters should understand that Medicare is being saved by Republicans who might talk about nibbling around the edges but really really really want to "preserve and protect" the program. Indeed, think back to George W. Bush's expansion of Medicare to include subsidized prescription drugs for seniors. That program was passed by large Republican majorities over vocal (though by no means unanimous) Democratic opposition.
What's not to like in maintaining Medicare via Ryan's suggestion that seniors be given large amounts of free money to buy their insurance? First and foremost, Medicare is not a program that should be preserved and protected. More than any other single program it is bankrupting the country. Designed consciously by LBJ as the last act of New Deal-era Social Security reforms, it addressed issues that are no longer in play. As Veronique de Rugy and I wrote in the August-September cover story for Reason, especially if you believe in a government-provided social safety net you should want to tear up this program and replace it with a targeted and sustainable plan. Even when you subtract Social Security and Medicare payments, seniors are wealthy and they should be expected to pay for their own health care and retirement. If they are too poor or incapacitated to do so, the state can help them out. But there is simply no compelling reason that relatively poor and younger voters should pick up the tab, either through regressive and sure-to-increase payroll taxes and debt payments.
Put slightly differently: If you're a Republican voter who dislikes government control of health care, you should be working tooth and nail to get rid of Medicare, which is a government-run single-payer health care system. As a decade of failed attempts to reduce doctor-reimbursement testify, Medicare can't be "reformed." It needs to be abolished.
The starting point of Matt Welch's and my book The Declaration of Independents (newly out in paperback with a timely introduction!) is that the GOP and the Democrats have been leaking market share since the early 1970s. Literally millions of voters have disaffiliated with the Dems and Reps since 2008 alone. I'd argue that's not happening because the two parties are offering such wildly different programs that, like Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter, voters are just so confused they don't know where to turn. Rather, it's because the parties for all their partisan bluster and rhetoric, are rapidly becoming indistinguishable when it comes to supporting the policies that have helped wreck the economy and darkened our future.
To be fair, it's probably asking too much for its national convention to be the place where the GOP (or any party) rolls out bold new ideas that represent some actual change of direction. But here's hoping.