Published on TheHill.com on September 13, 2011
Early this year, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) dug a huge hole for the Republican Party by proposing dramatic changes in the Medicare system. True, the changes would extend the life of the program. True, they would not affect current retirees. True, they won’t take effect for 10 years. But no matter. President Obama seized on the Ryan plan as a key element of his 2012 campaign.
Then the House leadership compounded the problem by passing the Ryan plan with all but four House Republicans in support. All the rest just followed Ryan off the cliff, putting themselves on record in favor of a plan Americans overwhelmingly opposed. Democrats, reeling from the 2010 defeats, were jubilant. The Republicans had just, in their view, given away the 2012 election.
Well, in Obama’s jobs speech, he gave it right back to the Republicans by embracing his own version of Medicare cuts.
As I heard Obama blundering, my mind cast back to a conversation I had with George Stephanopoulos in 1995 when he was opposing my suggestion that President Clinton lay out his own plan to balance the federal budget. George was concerned that if we proposed our own budget cuts, we would lose the ability to attack those being pushed by Newt Gingrich and the Republicans.
I countered that as long as we did not propose to cut Medicare, we would be OK and could still use the Medicare issue against the GOP. We did so with great success.
Now Obama has run afoul of what would have been George’s advice and has nullified the advantage Ryan’s mistake afforded him. More than any other, this false step on the president’s part was the most important political outcome of the Wednesday jobs speech.
How the Republicans respond should hinge on the details of Obama’s Medicare cuts. If the president wants to raise premiums or increase deductibles or means-test benefits, the GOP should agree. Obama will face plenty of flak in his own party and probably could only pass such a program in the Senate with Republican votes, but that’s his problem.
If there is a bipartisan deal over these kinds of Medicare cuts, the Republicans will be off the hook over the Ryan plan. Congress will have acted, and the issue will be off the table in the 2012 election.
But if Obama outlines cuts along the lines of his ObamaCare program, he will again be raising the rationing issue. Talk of death panels will resurface. In that case, Republicans must not let themselves be maneuvered into backing Obama’s program. To do so would be to break faith with their 2010 majority.
If Obama wants to control healthcare delivery and prescribe what doctors can and cannot do, Republicans must take him on over the issue. That will set the stage for a rerun of the 2010 election, and we all know how that came out.
In that case, the GOP will still come out ahead because the Medicare issue du jour won’t be the Ryan plan anymore, but the Obama Medicare cuts, and the Republicans will again be on the right side of the fight.
For the most part, Obama’s spending and tax-cut proposals will be subsumed into the overall question of deficit reduction. Republicans should take the position that they won’t spend the money until the cuts to offset them have been identified. And, with a few exceptions — such as corporate loopholes — they should say that they will gladly pass Obama’s program once the offsetting spending reductions have been crafted and passed.
Obama can well handle a “no” and use it to campaign on. But if Republicans say yes instead, he’ll have nothing to run on.