When Rep. Paul Ryan released his budget plan earlier this year, he knew what was coming. He warned that Democrats would take the plan's myriad details, and its Medicare reform in particular, and twist them into a "political weapon." Sure enough, Democrats took Ryan's plan, loaded it full of ammo, and began firing: In the weeks since the plan came out, Nancy Pelosi has tried to scare seniors with her argument that their benefits are at stake despite the fact that Medicare would remain essentially as it was pre-ObamaCare for current seniors and those over 55. Obama's Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius predicted, baselessly, that under Paul Ryan's plan seniors would "die sooner." And now there's this video from The Agenda Project, a group which claims its mission is to build an "intelligent, well-connected political movement capable of identifying and advancing rational, effective ideas in the public debate":
So much for rational ideas in public debate.
Sadly, but maybe not surprisingly, the Democratic line seems to be working on both the public and wavering Republicans. GOP Senators like Scott Brown and Lisa Murkowski are refusing to support the plan. Others, like Ryan's fellow Republican Rep. Dave Camp, are attempting to send the message that they were always against the plan. And Politico is running stories with headlines like "GOP braces for Medicare blowback":
First up is New York's 26th District in a special election Tuesday. If Democrat Kathy Hochul wins — she is leading by 4 to 6 points in the latest polls — it not only would be a setback for House Republicans but would send a message to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his key lieutenants that their Medicare overhaul plan could become a serious political liability.
And on the Senate floor later this week, Democrats are planning to force a vote on the 2012 budget proposal offered by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other top Democrats want to put Senate Republicans on the record voting for — or against — the Ryan proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program for seniors. Already, a few moderate Republicans — the latest being Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have bailed on it or look ready to jump.
For Democrats, these crystallizing moments would affirm that their Medicare-centric attacks are working — and that they're on the popular side of a major policy issue, maybe for the first time since the rise of the tea party movement two years ago. For moderate and vulnerable Republicans, these events have the potential to create a lot of hand-wringing and second-guessing for a party that's been on a roll.
Democratic gloating glosses over the fact that the GOP's current turn from Medicare reform merely sends the party back to its starting point. When Ryan released his original budget plan, the Roadmap to America's Future, he had trouble picking up even a handful of fellow Republican supporters in Congress. Prominent Republican leaders like John Boehner and Tim Pawlenty explicitly distanced themselves from it. Now we're seeing the same thing again. It was probably bound to happen. In part that's because the votes to pass a major entitlement haul never existed. Either way, it's quite a political pickle:
"Republicans are getting the worst of both worlds," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday during a conference call with reporters. "They want to distance themselves from this vote, but there is no face-saving way to do so. They have tried to turn themselves into pretzels to figure out how to deal with this awful plan introduced by the House."
Schumer is right that Republicans did this to themselves. But voting for the Ryan plan wasn't the only way the GOP helped cause the Medicare backlash. During the ObamaCare debate and the 2010 election, the party's loudest, most frequent criticism of last year's health care overhaul was that it cut Medicare. That was an effective message, but also a short-sighted one. Now as Republicans look for ways to reform Medicare on their own, their own words are coming back to haunt them.
As someone who would like to see Medicare overhauled along the lines that Ryan proposes, I can't say it's fun to watch. But the GOP—Rep. Ryan and a handful of others excepted—helped ensure that the Democrats' current Medicare message would be popular and effective. One of the reasons Ryan knew what was coming, it's safe to say, was that his own party had been there before.