* Republicans say offensive could win Medicare debate
* At stake are elderly who often vote Republican
* National convention could seek to define Ryan plan
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, Aug 15 Faced with Democratic Party
assaults on vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's Medicare
plan, Republicans have made the political calculation that a
counter-attack can preserve support among senior citizens who
could sway the November election's outcome.
"Democrats are asking for it," Mike Shields, political
director at the National Republican Congressional Committee,
said in a memo to party operatives on Monday, just days after
presidential hopeful Mitt Romney announced Ryan as his running
Wisconsin Congressman Ryan has won the backing of party
conservatives for policies aimed at cutting billions of dollars
from the U.S. deficit. The most politically risky has been a
proposal to transform the government's Medicare health plan for
the elderly into a program that would give seniors vouchers to
manage their own healthcare costs.
The danger, according to political analysts, is that elderly
dislike for Ryan's plan could shave off as much as 5 percentage
points of voter support from the Republican ticket in closely
fought races in half a dozen swing states, including Florida,
Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Many Republican officials initially expressed misgivings
about the Ryan pick. But a growing number now believe a powerful
offensive could recast Medicare as a debate about President
Barack Obama's unpopular healthcare reform law, a tactic that
drew enough senior citizen support in 2010 to win a Republican
majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The party also hopes to present Romney and Ryan as the team
with the best plan to safeguard Medicare against future
Ryan was already telegraphing the message late on Tuesday.
"They turned Medicare into a piggy bank to finance Obamacare.
The Obama campaign thinks it's an achievement that they raided
Medicare to pay for Obamacare, and we want to point that out,"
Ryan said in a Fox News interview.
The top Republican in the U.S. Congress, John Boehner,
outlined a similar strategy during a conference call with
Republican lawmakers the same day.
Obama fired back by saying his rivals were being "pretty
dishonest about my plan," knowing that their own view on
Medicare was "not very popular."
A national Republican television commercial aired this week
warning senior citizens that "money you paid" into Medicare
would be used to fund "a massive new government program that's
not for you." The party also plans to target Democratic House
incumbents in six states with ads attacking their support for
Medicare cuts in separate ads slated to begin on Friday.
"There's a fundamental misunderstanding that somehow this is
not an issue that we're going to be 100 percent on offense on,"
said Sean Spicer of the Republican National Committee.
"But if you clearly define the issue, the problem that
exists and the solutions that we offer, it's a winning issue."
OBAMACARE VS RYANCARE
There are still many risks to the strategy, political
experts say. With nearly 50 million elderly and disabled
beneficiaries, Medicare represents a major issue for both
parties in deficit talks because healthcare costs tend to rise
faster than inflation. The program is forecast to grow from $590
billion this year to $1 trillion in 2021.
Senior citizen voters have also been among the Republicans'
most reliable supporters in recent elections, backing
conservative policies on fiscal and social issues including gay
"They have put in play a group that prior to this was going
to vote more Republican," said Robert Blendon, a political
analyst at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida, later
this month could be the party's best chance to define Medicare
in favorable terms.
"If they fail, then Medicare will be used to bludgeon the
GOP's candidates, from top to bottom of the ticket," said Larry
Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Medicare advocates contend that Ryan's plan would leave
senior citizens responsible for thousands more dollars in per
capita healthcare costs every year.
Ryan supporters, however, say it would spawn competition
among doctors and other providers that would rein in cost
growth, while streamlining the federal budget. They also argue
that Obama's healthcare reform, due to take full effect in 2014,
cuts $716 billion from Medicare.
The Obama administration attributes those savings to the
law's effort to shift Medicare away from a system that pays
doctors for the number of services they provide to a model that
rewards the overall quality of care a patient.
Whether "Obamacare" or "Ryancare" proves to be the more
potent political toxin remains to be seen. Obama's Medicare
savings proved unpopular with elderly voters in 2010, when exit
polls showed older voters favoring Republicans by a 57-41
percent margin. But opposition to the Ryan plan has been much
stronger with seniors 2-1 against, according to the Pew Research
"They are deeply concerned and wary of changes generally in
Medicare and Social Security," said Pew associate director
Mindful of a failure back in 2010 to effectively sell
Obamacare, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began
delivering automated phone messages to voters this week, warning
them against Ryan's Medicare strategy in 50 districts where
Republicans are up for re-election.
A new Obama Web video released on Wednesday uses TV news
reporting on the Ryan plan to drive home the message that
Republicans would "end Medicare as we know it."