Is Republican Paul Ryan the most courageous person in Congress—or the most out-of-touch politician in Washington since Walter Mondale suggested in 1984 that he might raise taxes if elected President? From the moment the House Budget Committee chairman unveiled his plan to cut $6 trillion in spending over 10 years, reduce tax rates, and eventually privatize Medicare and convert Medicaid to a block grant to the states, Democrats have been predictably warning —with no small amount of glee--that Ryanomics would hurt seniors and the poor while lowering taxes for the wealthiest Americans.
Even some Republican analysts interviewed by The Fiscal Times see political pitfalls for GOP candidates unless they take steps to inoculate themselves before the 2012 elections. Republican strategist Ron Bonjean acknowledges that Ryan makes a powerful political argument but cautions that vulnerable members of Congress have to get out in front of the issue, and do it early.
“The challenge for Republicans is that they have to educate people on what they are doing and do it quickly before the cement dries on the issue,” says Bonjean . “They have to go to their town halls and use social media, use anything they can to point out that those who receive Medicare now aren’t affected but those who enter the program will have a different package.”
However, even preemptive strikes might not be enough to protect some of the 87 Republican House freshmen, who may have won election on the theme of cutting the federal deficit and reducing the size of government but could be answerable to an electorate unhappy with the tough medicine in Ryan’s stark blueprint.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, says that while Americans are “serious” about wanting to address the $1.5 trillion budget deficit, they will also “be serious about rejecting Paul Ryan’s approach to doing that.” Adds Garin, “The idea that older people and working families who are already facing a tough time [would take a hit] while preserving and expanding tax breaks for people at the top will seem completely out of whack to the public. And Garin postulates that some Republicans in swing districts might walk away from the plan.
While polls show Americans want to reduce the deficit and the debt, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, calls that a good citizen response.
“The difference between a poll question and the actual poll on election days is reality,” Sabato tells The Fiscal Times. “They vote their interests on election day.”
Ryan’s plan would restructure Medicare for seniors so that the next generation of retirees would receive subsidies to buy private health insurance--replacing the current government-run program. Moreover, Medicaid for the poor and disabled would no longer be a federal-state program but a block grant to states – a move that would enable state governments to sharply reduce health-care costs.
President Obama’s fiscal commission and a number of other advisory groups and experts have repeatedly warned that long-term spending on Medicare and Medicaid is not sustainable and will gradually consume a huge portion of the overall budget. Ryan says his plan would save billions in the future, but a Congressional Budget Office analysis of a similar plan concluded it would cost seniors more and reduce benefits.
Political analysts say that opponents of the Ryan plan, who contend that the GOP proposals amount to a huge hit for seniors and the poor, have a powerful political argument.
“I don’t know if I’d say it’s a slam dunk, it’s at least a three pointer,” says Sabato. “These sorts of proposals, however serious they are, are just fodder for political campaigns. The political facts of life are if you even mention changing Medicare or Social Security or any other entitlement, you hand your opponent a two by four to beat you over the head with.”
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last month appears to back that up. The poll found than three-in-four Americans reject the idea of cutting Social Security benefits, Medicare, or public education and less than a third want to cut Medicaid.
Ironically, Republicans attacked Democrats in last fall’s mid-term election campaign for proposed cuts in the Medicare Advantage program contained in Obama’s health-care-reform law. One GOP ad, which was mirrored by others around the country, attacked incumbent Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Mich., for voting to “cut $500 billion from Medicare.” According to The Wall Street Journal, the ad declared: “Let’s save Medicare and cut Schauer.” Schauer lost to Republican challenger Tim Walberg.
The lesson of Schauer hasn’t been lost on many freshman Republicans who were reluctant to immediately endorse Ryan’s proposal. Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy, for example, told Politico it is a “bold proposal” but didn’t offer an endorsement. Another GOP freshman, New York Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle praised the budget as “serious” but also told Politico she wanted to review it further before endorsing it.
Bonjean says that while some Republicans will be reluctant to embrace the Ryan plan, they could mitigate the political problem by proposing modifications to the budget before a final vote in the House. “Most Republicans will vote for it,” he predicts. “But some in swing districts may have to say no. Just like some Democrats didn’t vote for [Obama’s] health-care law.”