Ryan's Plan Puts Republican Presidential Hopefuls in a Tough Spot

The GOP budget proposal would end Medicare, but fiscal hawks will attack anyone who opposes it. What's a White House hopeful to do?

Paul Ryan plan with Cantor - AP Photo:Carolyn Kaster - banner.jpg

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan introduced his 2012 budget plan at a press conference Tuesay. credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Caster

With its big-dollar numbers and radical program changes, the budget proposal released Tuesday by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is daring policy-making of the highest order, but it is as a political document that Ryan's budget might have its most far-reaching implications.

"It is not a political document," insisted Ed Rollins, a GOP consultant. "It is not something as a political strategist I would draft for my candidate to run on."

Nowhere are the reforms more radical than on Medicare, and already the field of prospective Republican presidential candidates is walking a political tightrope in reaction to Ryan's sweeping proposal to convert Medicare into a voucher-based system for people younger than 55.

Their dilemma is this: Opposition to the Ryan proposal, or even a show of only qualified support, exposes them to charges from the right wing that they are not sufficiently committed to spending-cuts and deficit-reduction, which is now the heart of Republican orthodoxy.

However, if a candidate fully embraced Ryan's proposed entitlement change, he or she risks angering and alienating seniors, a critical part of the GOP's successful 2010 coalition that reclaimed control of the House. Either way, a clear position on the Medicare reform proposal in 2011 could sink them and the party's chances in 2012.

To walk that line, the race's front-runners on Tuesday carved out responses that heaped praise on Ryan, supported his budget in principle, but didn't tie themselves to his plan to change Medicare.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty complimented Ryan for "offering real leadership" but didn't specifically endorse the budget's provisions. Most of his statement, in fact, reiterated his opposition to raising the debt ceiling next month.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, used a similar tack, issuing a statement "applauding" Ryan for addressing the country's "financial crisis."

"He is setting the right tone for finally getting spending and entitlements under control," said Romney. "Anyone who has read my book knows that we are on the same page."

In his book, Romney mentions offering seniors a "credit" to buy insurance as one of several proposals to reduce Medicare costs, but the proposal was couched as a suggestion, not a requirement.

The written remarks were similar to those given by former Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Palin voiced support for Ryan's budget "roadmap," the precursor to his budget, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published late last year, and Huckabee offered support for a voucher system in his latest book. Huckabee released the following statement on Tuesday about the Ryan plan: "It's doubtful the House's proposal will be passed in its current form, and it's unlikely that this one proposal will be the ultimate solution to all of our economic problems. But Congressman Ryan's proposal is certainly a start--one that I support as a small step to restoring fiscal sanity and reducing the size of government."

If the GOP candidates are worried about the political fallout of embracing a Medicare conversion, they have reason.

Seniors, once a lynchpin of the Democrats' electoral strategy, overwhelmingly backed the GOP last year.

Angered by the Affordable Care Act and pushed by a blitz of Republican ads decrying $500 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage programs it included, 59 percent of seniors supported Republican House candidates in 2010, according to exit polls.

But other surveys suggest a GOP push to change Medicare has the potential to shift many of them back to the Democratic Party. A Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll last September, conducted with the Pew Research Center, reported 69 percent of seniors oppose converting Medicare, with just 14 percent voicing support.

Some Republican strategists concede that even if the public is more willing to consider entitlement changes than any recent election, it still carries significant political risk.

But if keeping the budget at arm's length is beneficial for a general election, doing so could be a liability in a primary, particularly with economic issues at the forefront of most voters' minds.

Candidates need to support deficit-cutting proposals now, said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, because tackling the country's debt will only become more difficult.

"If they aren't willing to provide leadership on this issue now, they're not qualified to lead the country," he said.

At least one potential GOP candidate is already pushing his rivals to embrace the proposal, and then some. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who early in the campaign has carved out a position on the race's right flank, said during an interview that not only does he embrace Ryan's plan for Medicare, he wants Republicans to consider offering it for people older than 55.

"[Seniors] are looking at this saying, 'Hey, we're part of the problem ... and we should be part of the solution."

Santorum's idea would torpedo Republicans' assurances to seniors that they can keep their Medicare as it is, possibly mushrooming the political fallout. But it's indicative of how far some GOP candidates could go to prove their fiscal bona fides.

Conservative voters aren't going to be appeased by candidates who talk about cutting spending but don't offer specifics, said Santorum.

"I just don't think that's going to cut it," he said.

This article appeared in the Wednesday, April 6, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily.

Drop-down bar thumbnail credit: Larry Downing/Reuters