With the budget plan he presented Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin wanted to draw clean, clear distinctions between how Republicans and Democrats would handle the huge federal deficits now facing the US.
Democrats, however, believe Congressman Ryan has just given them a clean, clear shot at Republican candidates in November.
On Tuesday, they were are already lining up to take their swing at what they considered a political piñata.
The primary target, as was the case when House Budget Chairman Ryan released his budget last year, is Medicare. Last year, Ryan's proposals for reforming Medicare became a campaign issue, with one Democratic candidate in upstate New York winning a traditionally Republican seat in a special congressional election by building her message around Republican plans to "end Medicare."
Ryan has softened last year's reforms, even working with Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon to give his efforts a bipartisan sheen.
But so far, the Democrats' response to the Ryan plan appears to be a carbon copy of a year ago.
Before Ryan’s budget was even released, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched a “Medicare March” initiative, using robocalls to tie 41 GOP lawmakers to the budget.
“It is still a proposal that creates a voucher system for Medicare and thereby ends Medicare as we know it,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at his daily briefing on Tuesday. “Contrary to some assessments that somehow by calling it Medicare it still remains Medicare, we're going to stand by the fact that Medicare as we know it would be ended by this program.”
The problem for Republicans is that, as was the case last year, they've done little to prepare American voters for the plan.
In 2011, “there was never any effort on the part of Republicans to sort of sell [the budget] first,” says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report. Noting a similar lack of political preparation work this year, Ms. Duffy adds: “If it's the same sort of approach, then they hand Democrats a cudgel.”
The Democrats are eager for a cudgel.
Republicans once bashed President Obama’s health-care reforms, saying they included “death panels” designed to ration care for the elderly. Democrats are trying to use the Ryan plan to create their own policy bogeyman: the death spiral.
That’s what would happen under Ryan’s Medicare proposal, according to Gene Sperling, director of the White House’s National Council of Economic Advisors, as healthy seniors flee the standard Medicare system for cheaper private plans and seniors with health problems elect for standard Medicare. That would drive up the program's costs and push out more and more seniors until Medicare withers completely, the argument goes.
“When you create this type of two-tier system, the overwhelming economic incentive of those competing health plans is not to compete on how well you will offer the best coverage to the most people, but how successfully you will be on siphoning off the youngest and the healthiest of the senior population," Mr. Sperling said at the liberal Center for American Progress on Tuesday, “And once you do that, those left in Medicare will then be an older and sicker population who will pay higher and higher costs.”
Democrats feel emboldened because they believe polling is on their side.
Nearly 3 in 4 Americans, and more than half of Republicans, want Medicare “as it is today, with the government guaranteeing seniors health insurance and making sure that everyone gets the same defined set of benefits,” according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released March 1.
Moreover, nearly half of Americans favor Democrats to deal with health-care issues, according to a Pew Research report released March 14, versus just over 1 in 3 who favors Republicans. That gap has widened to 14 percentage points from only two points in April 2011, the month after Ryan’s last budget proposal, according to Pew’s polling. Democrats have a similarly hefty advantage when it comes to Medicare, according to Pew data.
Even with Democrats racing to outdo one another with budget criticism, Ryan says the stakes are simply too high for him to stay quiet.
“If we simply operate based on political fear, nothing is ever going to get done,” Ryan said Tuesday. “If we allow entitlement politics, fear that your adversaries will turn your reforms into a political weapon to use against you, and we cow to that, then America is going to have a debt crisis.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, is preparing a Democratic rejoinder to Ryan’s plan, to be released next week.
“I welcome people to take a look at our alternative, and I hope people will compare them and they will find very different paths,” said Congressman Van Hollen. “One is a shortcut for the very wealthy to increased prosperity, and the other will strengthen the middle class and our economy overall.”