Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, moving aggressively to defend his running mate’s budget blueprint, charged that President Barack Obama is weakening Medicare while his party is working to save it.
Romney used a visit to Florida -- home to the nation’s largest population of seniors -- to wade into a politically risky debate over the government health program for the elderly, citing the Medicare plan offered by his vice presidential pick, Representative Paul Ryan, as an example of the contrast between the Republican’s vision and Obama’s.
Ryan, 42, the House Budget Committee chairman Romney chose Aug. 11 to join him on the Republican ticket, has “come up with ideas that are very different than the president’s,” Romney told voters at a rally at Flagler College in St. Augustine. “The president’s idea, for instance, for Medicare was to cut it by $700 billion. That’s not the right answer. We want to make sure that we preserve and protect Medicare.”
The Wisconsin congressman is the architect of a fiscal plan that includes steep spending cuts and the eventual transformation of Medicare from government insurance into a federal subsidy for private coverage. Democrats charge the plan would amount to scrapping Medicare, and analysts say it would increase costs or reduce benefits for many seniors.
Ready for Debate
In choosing Ryan as his running mate, Romney signaled he’s ready for the charged debate over such a proposal -- along with other elements of the congressman’s budget blueprint. Romney underscored that message today at a brief news conference in Miami.
“I’m sure there are places that my budget is different than his, but we’re on the same page,” Romney told reporters, referring to Ryan’s plan. “We simply cannot continue to pretend that a Medicare on track to become bankrupt at some point is acceptable. We must take action to make sure that we can save Medicare for coming generations.”
Romney referred today to Obama’s health-care overhaul, which was financed in part by cutting $500 billion in Medicare spending, including payments to private insurers that contract with the program. What he didn’t say is that Ryan would keep those cuts -- though he proposes using them to help shore up Medicare over the long term.
The former Massachusetts governor also argued that Democrats’ proposed plan for finding Medicare savings -- appointing a panel of experts to take the lead in finding cuts - - would turn Medicare into an HMO-like system with “an unelected board which will tell people what kinds of treatments they can have.”
Obama’s campaign struck back swiftly, saying it was the Republican plan that would hurt seniors.
“The truth is that the Romney-Ryan budget would end Medicare as we know it by pushing seniors into the private market and raising their health-care costs by thousands of dollars per year,” Lis Smith, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement.
Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super-political action committee, argued that by recruiting Ryan for his ticket, Romney has made it easier for Democrats to persuade voters that he embraces the proposals in the “politically toxic” budget for which the congressman is known.
In focus groups with swing voters in battleground states over the last year, the group said in a memo today that it found “virtually unanimous strong opposition” to Ryan’s budget.
“By choosing Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney actually helped to solve one of the key strategic challenges we had in helping voters to understand that, in fact, Romney does support the kind of policies embedded in the Ryan budget,” the memo said.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Ryan’s addition to the ticket would be an asset or a liability for Romney, with a new survey indicating the public is split over the selection. A USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 42 percent of Americans view Ryan as a “fair” or “poor” choice, while 39 percent think he is an “excellent” or “pretty good” choice.
According to the survey, 17 percent said they were more likely to vote for Romney in November because Ryan is on the ticket, about the same boost former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin gave 2008 Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain among registered voters.
Romney, on the third day of a bus tour of electoral battlegrounds where he must win independent voters, is seeking to present his ticket as one of consensus-building and optimism, while Democrats try to portray it as one of hardline ideology and austerity.
“What’s radical and extreme is to spend $1 trillion more every year than you take in,” Romney told reporters. On Medicare, he said, “my plan says for coming generations, for the young people when they come along, give them more choice, let them have the opportunity to either use current Medicare or to be able to use a private plan.”
Obama’s team argues that Ryan’s budget would gut Medicare while giving tax breaks to the wealthiest. “Top-down economics is central” to Romney, “and it is central to his running mate,” the president told about 1,000 donors at Bridegport Art Center in Chicago yesterday.
Calling Ryan “the ideological leader of the Republicans,” Obama said the Wisconsin lawmaker is “an articulate spokesman” for Romney’s vision. “But it’s a vision that I fundamentally disagree with.”
Romney has endorsed Ryan’s budget and talked generally about a fiscal plan that shares much in common with it, including slashing federal spending by $500 billion by 2016 and changes to Medicare that would allow seniors a choice of staying in the traditional program or using subsidies to buy private insurance. Romney, though, hasn’t provided specifics about the government spending he would cut or how he would finance individual and corporate tax cuts amounting to $5 trillion over a decade.
Romney has been touting Ryan as a lawmaker who searches for common ground with Democrats, several times highlighting the congressman’s collaboration last year with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon on changes to his Medicare plan.
Ryan, whose original Medicare plan would have shifted the entire program to one defined by its contributions, teamed with Wyden on a paper proposing adding an option for seniors to stay in the traditional program, which is defined by its benefits. That proposal was similar to the one included in Ryan’s latest House-passed budget, which received no Democratic votes.
Wyden, though, pushed back in a statement yesterday that called Romney’s comments “nonsense,” and said he ultimately opposed Ryan’s proposal.