Medicare may be just a policy debate for President Obama and Mitt Romney. But for their running mates, it is much more than that. For them, it is a reflection of their very different life experiences. And, as is the case on so many issues for the two men, it reflects the reality that they grew up in Americas that were starkly different.
By the time Ryan was born in 1970, Biden had graduated from college, married, finished law school, become a father, and entered politics. By the time Ryan cast his first presidential ballot in 1988, Biden had voted in six presidential elections, run for president once, and was in his third term as a U.S. senator. As a high-school student, Biden watched people line up for a polio vaccine that lifted a nation's dread of a crippling disease. As a high-school student, Ryan watched people secretly go for AIDS testing as doctors seemed powerless to stem the rising fear of a disease that seemed to target his generation.
Growing up, Biden saw an activist government land a man on the moon, champion civil rights, and tackle poverty. Growing up, Ryan witnessed a bureaucratic government lose space shuttle crews, trade arms for hostages, and fumble welfare. Biden graduated from college in 1965 amid prosperity. Ryan graduated from college in 1992 amid recession. Biden was inspired by John F. Kennedy's call to public service; Ryan was moved by Ronald Reagan's dismissal of government as "the problem."
These are the times and the life experiences that shaped them, deeply affecting their politics and giving them sharply different views of what government can and should do. "Ryan is the Reagan generation. Biden is Kennedy's," Schnur says. "It is not surprising that two smart, ambitious people who came of age in those two eras were influenced by the leading political figures of the time."
Nor should it be a surprise that Biden and Ryan approach Medicare from their different generational perspectives. "We see an America where Social Security is protected, where Medicare is available to distressed people, and where Medicare fulfills its original mission," the vice president told seniors in Virginia recently, standing up for the traditional program and accusing Republicans of wanting to "voucherize" it.
Ryan, in turn, does not shy away from the generational influence on his views, something he acknowledged at a House Budget Committee hearing in March 2010. "If you're under 55, those of us in my X generation and everybody else, we know we're not getting the program as it's currently structured," he said then. "So why don't we come up with an idea to save the program, to make it sustainable, to give us a benefit — my generation — that's something we know we can count on?" With statements like that, Ryan is very much a spokesman for his fellow Generation X-ers, who long have been deeply cynical about whether either Social Security or Medicare will be there when the first wave of them hits retirement age in 2031.