Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012 | 2 a.m.
For more than a year, Democrats have owned the issue of Medicare.
Seeing an early opportunity in a cadre of special elections in 2011, Democrats used a proposal crafted by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to accuse Republicans of seeking to end Medicare.
The line has become a ubiquitous part of their advertising in a number of races, most notably the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Shelley Berkley and Republican Dean Heller.
Heller had the notable distinction of voting twice for the so-called Ryan budget, which proposed transitioning Medicare into a premium support model for people younger than 55—a fact Berkley and Democrats have used as a hammer to pound Heller in TV ads, mailers and web ads.
Polls show the issue is a winner for Democrats. Voters generally trust Democrats more than Republicans when it comes to Medicare and oppose dramatic changes to the existing program.
So, on first blush, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s decision to put Ryan—the Democrats’ quintessential Medicare boogeyman—on the ticket was a risky move.
But that wasn’t news to the Romney campaign, which fully anticipated Medicare would be the initial attack from Democrats.
In response, Romney and Republicans have launched their own counter-offense on Medicare, fully engaging on the issue for perhaps the first time since Democrats identified it as a sweet spot.
Last week, the Romney campaign unleashed a television ad accusing President Barack Obama of cutting $700 billion from Medicare.
In his stump speech, Ryan issued his own “bring it on” declaration.
“We want this debate. We need this debate. And we will win this debate,” Ryan told a crowd in Florida.
The message Republicans hope to convey: We have proposed a plan that will sustain a Medicare program, while Democrats have actually cut funding and have done little to address its long-term instability.
Not only have Republicans found a message, they now have a messenger with a bullhorn on the presidential ticket.
Whether either will be successful remains to be seen.
Democrats have their own counter to the Republicans’ attack. Ryan proposed the same $700 billion cuts to Medicare—cuts the Democrats actually call savings since they represent a slowing of the spending growth of spending, rather than less money to the program.
And the health care law passed by Democrats extended the life of the Medicare trust fund by a few years, according to the latest trustees report.
But the fact Republicans have chosen to engage on the issue means they will likely have at least some success in blunting Democrats’ attack.
And that will have ramifications beyond the presidential race—perhaps most importantly for the Senate race.
So far, Berkley’s main line of attack against Heller has been on Medicare. She has saturated inboxes, mailboxes, door handles and airwaves with it.
Is it working? A poll released last week by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee indicates voters care more about Medicare than they do about the on-going ethics investigation against Berkley by a 20-point margin.
Now, however, Republicans are putting money behind a counter-attack.
While Ryan says he’s eager for the debate, so are Democrats.
With polling on their side and a year of groundwork laid, they argue Republicans are playing catch up.
“The Republican budget proposal that essentially ends Medicare was written by Paul Ryan, endorsed by Mitt Romney and voted for twice by Senator Dean Heller,” Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas said. “They own it. And over the past year, voters have become very familiar with their plan to put private insurance company bureaucrats in between seniors and their doctors while raising Medicare premiums by an average of $6,000 a year. So this most recent Republican attack on Medicare is not only late to the game, but easily refutable given that the Ryan-Romney-Heller budget includes these exact savings.”