Who Do You Trust on Medicare?

By Clive Crook

I don't know how much honesty I expected from Paul Ryan's convention speech, but there was less than I'd hoped. I heard evasions and misdirections rather than outright lies--politics as usual, not especially brazen, so forgive me if I can't rise to the proper level of indignation. But let the record show it was a shoddy performance. Jonathan Cohn has a crisp, clear summary of the truth-twisting on the GM plant (Ryan implied Obama let it close, but it was shut down before he took office); on Obama's plans for Medicare (Ryan's budgets included the cuts he attacks Obama for proposing, though Romney-Ryan now promise to reverse them); the credit downgrade (mostly the Republicans' fault); public debt (Bush's tax cuts have added far more to it than the stimulus); and need to protect the weak (on whom Ryan's spending cuts would mostly fall).

To this I'd add the serial dishonesty over Bowles-Simpson. Yet again, Ryan criticized Obama for failing to support the fiscal commission and ignoring its report--though Ryan himself was a member of the commission and led other House Republicans in voting its proposals down (so in fact a formal report was never issued). The first time I heard Ryan do this in a speech I actually thought I'd misheard him, and asked a question at the end seeking clarification. I still don't understand how Ryan feels entitled to fault Obama for ignoring a report he, Ryan, had just voted down. They were both wrong about Bowles-Simpson. They are both to blame for killing that initiative.

What Ryan said about Medicare surprised me. He drew attention to the subject yet chose to say nothing about the Romney-Ryan plans. You'd think it would have to be one or the other: Either stay off it because your ideas are unpopular, or face it squarely and explain why your ideas make sense. Instead the message was: Unlike the Democrats, we'll reform Medicare to save it--but don't press for details. In this the parties aren't so different. Both have radical plans for healthcare reform that neither really wants to defend. Both think it's safest to attack (mainly by misrepresenting) the other party's approach.

In other words, both sides are asking to be trusted. On Medicare, I'd have guessed voters would be far more trusting of the Democrats, implying a heavier burden of proof for the GOP. Having started the Medicare argument, they'd have to explain and defend their policies, or else lose, which would be a good thing--a debate the country needs, and all that. But, as Ron Brownstein says, it ain't necessarily so:

In the latest Kaiser Family Foundation health care tracking poll this month, just 22 percent of white seniors said they believed their family would be better off under the Obama [healthcare] plan, while 36 percent said they expect to be worse off.

As these competing anxieties collide, the new ABC News/Washington Post poll produced a head-turning result: It found that white seniors, by 51 percent to 36 percent, say they trust Romney over Obama to handle Medicare; among whites near retirement (aged 50-64), Romney led by 2-to-1.

Head-turning is right: Some of those approaching retirement would be directly affected by the change to premium support.

What if both sides think refusing to explain their policies is a winning strategy? What if voters get most of their "facts" about the Democrats' Medicare plan from Republicans, and vice versa? So much for the Great Debate.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/08/who-do-you-trust-on-medicare/261800/