Political Advice to Republicans on Medicare

The Republicans are very upset that their vote for Representative Ryan's plan to end Medicare is being used against them. The loss of an upstate New York Congressional seat that they held for 50 years was quite a shock. Furthermore, groups are already using this vote in attack ads around the country to threaten incumbents.

This could be really bad news for their election prospects in 2012 since Medicare is a hugely popular program. Polls consistently show that the program has enormous public support among all political and demographic groups. Not only do Democrats and independents overwhelmingly support the Medicare program, even Republicans overwhelmingly approve of Medicare. Even Tea Party Republicans overwhelming approve of Medicare.

The same story holds by age group. Of course, Medicare has the greatest support among the over-65 age group that currently depends on it, but the program even draws large majority support among young voters who hope to be able to rely on the program in their retirement. Republicans could try to extend the vote to ten-year-olds, but this route probably does not hold much promise.

Republicans can try to keep people from talking about their vote. This was the path pursued by New Hampshire Rep. Charlie Bass who tried to keep television stations from running ads that said that he voted to end Medicare. The problem is that this effort runs up against the First Amendment. Even a court dominated by right-wing judges is unlikely to allow Republicans to block their political opponents from talking about their vote to end Medicare in political ads.

Of course, they could look to buy up the media outlets and then refuse to take the ads. They already have Fox and The Washington Post, but there are probably still too many independent outlets to make this a feasible strategy in advance of the 2012 elections.

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The Republicans can try to deny that their plan actually ends Medicare and hope that voters will be sufficiently confused that they won't hold the vote against them. They have already been staking out this ground, claiming that they just want to “change” Medicare. Instead of saying that they would give beneficiaries a voucher to use to buy a health insurance policy, which would allow people to understand their proposal, they are instead saying that it is a system of “premium support,” which is a term that no one understands.

This may help with a few pundits, but if the Republicans can't keep their political opponents from pointing out that their plan actually does replace Medicare's insurance with a voucher system, this silly charade will not buy them much. People know the difference between being handed a check for $8,000 and being told to go buy insurance and the current Medicare system, which covers most of the cost of most care. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this difference comes to $39 trillion over Medicare's 75-year planning period, more than five times the size of the projected Social Security shortfall.

As a practical matter, it doesn't look like the Republicans will either be able to keep their opponents from talking about their vote to end Medicare or to convince the public that they didn't really vote to end Medicare. However the Republicans do still have a third option: admit that the vote was a mistake and reverse it.

This is a rare opportunity that is still available to Congressional Republicans. Usually when we do bone-headed things we don't get a do-over. We have to live with the consequences and try to make amends as best we can.

But the Republicans still control the House. They could simply hold another vote tomorrow and repeal the budget plan calling for the end of Medicare. They can probably even persuade Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to give the Republicans in the Senate the opportunity to reverse their vote on Medicare as well.

So, there is it is, a simple plan that could possibly save dozens of Republican Congressional seats in 2012. This is the sort of advice for which they would pay political consultants millions. But the Republicans can get it here for free. If they were smart, they would take it.