GOP attacks Dems on Medicare

May 12, 2011

Rank-and-file Republicans took a pounding on Medicare during the last congressional recess, and now they’re trying to figure out a way to get back on offense on an issue that’s traditionally been Democratic turf.

It starts Friday, when House Republicans begin airing three weeks of Medicare-focused Fox cable advertising attacking Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney in Northern California.

McNerney barely survived his last reelection bid, and the National Republican Congressional Committee ad is expected to serve as something of a template for outside groups looking to weaken Democrats heading into the 2012 election.

It’s a small but telling shift for a Republican Party that has been struggling to make the two-part case that the massive health entitlement for seniors must be reformed now and that the GOP’s approach is the right one. Perhaps it will work, perhaps it won’t. But Republicans say they’re not going to back down from the fight on Medicare just because Democrats think they own the issue.

The Republican message: “McNerney and President Obama’s Medicare plan empowers bureaucrats to interfere with doctors, risking seniors’ access to treatment. Now, Obama’s budget plan lets Medicare go bankrupt: That’d mean big cuts to benefits. Tell McNerney to stop bankrupting Medicare.”

The attack ads come after a series of stumbles on Medicare by the GOP House majority. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) stepped on the party’s message last week when he acknowledged the political reality that any deal to increase the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling isn’t likely to include the kind of major Medicare overhaul envisioned in the House GOP budget. Even when they’re on message, Republican leaders will only go so far as to say that reforming the entitlement program is still “on the table” — with everything other than tax hikes — in deficit-reduction talks.

Perhaps worst of all, a recent Quinnipiac poll showed 60 percent of voters believe Medicare should be left as it is. And while polls vary based on which specific questions are asked, it’s clear the program, in its current form, remains popular.

Some conservatives are so nervous the party will abandon its commitment to cutting Medicare that they’ve taken aim at House Speaker John Boehner’s handling of the matter because he hasn’t conditioned a debt-limit increase on entitlement reform — even though his critics concede he won’t get that in the end.

“John Boehner’s statements have been murky at best,” said Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots. “I can’t tell what his position is … People want to see that Republicans and all government officials are serious about entitlement reform.”

Meckler and his group have been applying pressure to Republicans to insist on actual cuts to entitlement programs, rather than general spending caps, as a part of legislation to increase the federal debt ceiling.

From the start, Republicans have known that slashing Medicare, in particular, is a risky political proposition and, given Democratic control of the White House and Senate, an unlikely policy outcome. The high point so far came when the House adopted Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s resolution, which envisions turning Medicaid into a block-grant program and shrinking Medicare by transitioning from a defined-benefit program to one based on direct premium supports.

President Barack Obama largely left entitlement programs alone in his budget, and neither party has the gumption to take on the most popular of the programs: Social Security.

But Ryan’s budget ran smack into reality — and fast. The Senate won’t take it up. The president and every Democrat down the line has been quick to say Ryan and House Republicans would “end Medicare as we know it.” Liberal interest groups rallied their activists to show up at GOP-held town hall meetings. And it appears to be a nonstarter in deficit-reduction negotiations. All of that has had Republicans on their heels for weeks.

But they’re not giving up. The hope — the belief — on the GOP side is that they can fight on Medicare, convince voters that they’re serious about addressing the inextricably linked national debt crisis and that Democrats aren’t and salvage a draw on turf that has long been held by Democrats.

“We would consider it a victory if we can fight it to a wash, and we think we can do that,” said a Republican strategist.

Democrats say that’s not going to happen.

“House Republicans must not be watching town halls, seeing polls or they are just living under a rock if they think that the American people are going to forget their outrage about the vote to end Medicare while protecting giveaways to Big Oil and tax breaks for the ultrarich,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In GOP circles, there are two schools of thought on how to take on Medicare. The first — call it the front-door approach — is to push for the Ryan plan or a similar rewrite of the Medicare program that would result in hundreds of billions of savings in the short-term and trillions over a longer window. The back-door approach is to implement spending caps that trigger automatic program cuts if they are breached. Ultimately, such mandatory spending cuts would require Congress to take money from the big entitlement programs — because that’s where the money is.

American Action Forum President Doug Holtz-Eakin, who was the top policy adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said Republicans aren’t likely to get major Medicare changes into law before the 2012 election. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t “make it an obligation for the president, and the Democrats in general, to come up with a plan.”

Enter the argument in the McNerney ad: By doing nothing in his budget, Obama dooms Medicare to a slow-bleeding death. The program is already deep in red ink and escalating health care costs mean that it will eat up more and more of the federal budget over time. The second part of the GOP pitch is that the bureaucratic-sounding independent payment advisory board created by Obama’s new health care law will put a 15-member panel in between patients and their doctors.

How do Democrats message when they have no plan of their own? It’s simple: The DCCC put up a Website Wednesday,, that “gives grass-roots Democrats information on upcoming town hall meetings with the tools they need to speak out about the plan.” The online tool facilitates communication with members of Congress through phone calls, letters, in-person events and electronic media.

Pollster David Winston, who has long worked with Boehner, says the trick for Republicans is talking about Medicare in the larger context of the health of the nation’s economy. A plurality of respondents in an April CBS News/New York Times poll, for instance, replied that they would approve of changing Medicare to a private-insurance program and that’s in the same survey that found 61 percent of respondents believe that Medicare is worth its cost.

Winston says the difference between this effort to rein in Medicare and past Republican attempts to do the same is that more voters are aware of the nation’s dire debt situation and that more of them understand Medicare is going broke.

“Dealing with Medicare is how we’re going to make the government solvent so that we can get the economy back on track,” he said.

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