President Obama would dearly like to do it again [accuse Republicans of wanting to get rid of Medicare] in 2012. But this time, Republicans made it easy for him. Obama does not have to accuse them of having a secret plan to eliminate Medicare. In 2011, all but four House Republicans and all but five Senate Republicans voted for a very public plan to withdraw the Medicare guarantee from Americans younger than age 55.
The Paul Ryan plan would instead offer future retirees support to buy a private insurance plan—with the amount of the support rising at the rate of general inflation. If health care costs continue to rise during the next three decades at the same pace as in the past three decades, then—under this proposal—today’s 30-somethings would receive support sufficient to cover about 25 percent of their Medicare costs, leaving them to find the other 75 percent themselves. The money saved would be applied to balance the budget and finance a big tax cut, reducing the top income-tax rate to 28 percent from the otherwise scheduled 39.6 percent.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer at the time expressed worry that the Ryan plan might prove a “suicide note.
And at first Mitt Romney shrewdly kept his distance. “I appreciate what Paul Ryan has done,” Romney said on May 27, 2011, and cautiously added, “I’m going to have my own plan.” Asked whether he’d sign the plan, Romney demurred: “That’s the kind of speculation that is getting the cart ahead of the horse.
A week later, Romney’s resistance was weakening. Asked June 2, 2011, whether he would sign the Ryan plan if it comes to him, he said yes, but added again, “I’m going to have my own plan.”
Voters don’t care if politicians are rich. What they want to know is, what will this rich politician do for me? Or to me?
Through the fall, Romney yielded more and more ground to pressure from congressional Republicans entranced by Ryan’s vision.
In November, Romney did at last release that Medicare plan of his own. Structurally, the Romney plan resembled Ryan’s. But it remained vague on the key feature: how much premium support would future seniors get?
Then Gingrich began to rise in the polls, the first adversary to seriously worry the Romney campaign. To protect his right flank, Romney in December for the first time expressed unequivocal support for the Ryan plan—and the end of the Medicare guarantee for those now under 55.
Would a President Romney do such a thing? Would Congress really ultimately go along with it? Probably not and certainly not. But can President Obama credibly allege that a President Romney might do it? And will those allegations exact an electoral cost?
If the answers to those questions prove to be “yes,” conservative critics will blame Romney for his “weakness” as a candidate. But the real weakness will be that Romney acceded to those conservatives’ pressure to co-sign Paul Ryan’s suicide note.