Aug. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney, embracing political risk on an issue long considered a Democratic advantage, is attacking President Barack Obama on Medicare in a bid to turn a potential liability into an asset.
The Republican challenger and his vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, whose selection has thrust the issue to the forefront of the campaign, are trying to blunt assertions by Democrats that their plan to revamp Medicare amounts to a radical and damaging assault on a cherished program.
To do so, the Republican ticket is telling voters in campaign speeches, interviews and a new television advertisement that Obama is weakening the program through cuts that undermine its long-term sustainability.
The Romney campaign spot that began airing today in Ohio and other battleground states asserts that, because of Obama, “The money you paid for your guaranteed health care is going to a massive new government program that’s not for you.”
“The Romney-Ryan plan protects Medicare benefits for today’s seniors and strengthens the plan for the next generation,” the ad’s narrator says.
It’s a message Romney has been hitting at every opportunity; he said today at a fundraiser in Charlotte, North Carolina, that the topic “hasn’t received a lot of media attention, but it will.”
Romney told his backers in the city that early next month hosts the Democratic National Convention, that Obama “cut Medicare funding for current Medicare retirees,” referring to $716 billion in cuts to the program over a decade that were used to finance the health-care law the president pushed through Congress in 2010. “He raided that trust fund to pay for Obamacare, and as seniors hear this, they’re going to be angry.”
Romney spotlighted cuts yesterday as he spoke a crowd that included dozens of hardhat-wearing coal miners at the Century Mine in Beallsville, Ohio. “He’s used it to pay for Obamacare, a risky, unproven federal government takeover of health care,” Romney said. “And if I’m president of the United States, we’re putting the $716 billion back.”
Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who heads the House Budget Committee, said the issue is a winning one for Republicans “because we’re the ones who are offering a plan to save Medicare.”
“This is a debate we want to have, and that’s a debate we’re going to win,” Ryan said in an interview with Fox News last night.
Obama took on the issue as part of his regular stump speech today, as he was wrapping up a third day of campaigning in Iowa. He dismissed Republican criticism of how his health-care overhaul affects the Medicare.
“They are just throwing everything at the wall to see if it sticks,” Obama told a crowd of supporters in Dubuque, Iowa.
“I have strengthened Medicare,” he said. “They want to turn Medicare into a voucher program” that would force beneficiaries to pay more for health coverage.
Taking on the Medicare debate is a new tack for the Romney campaign, which until a few days ago focused on reviving the economy and creating jobs, accusing Obama of a dismal record on both.
Now, the campaigns are sparring over the government health program for the elderly, one that is prized by senior citizens who vote in disproportionate numbers. The debate has devolved into a policy-oriented round of mudslinging, with both sides misrepresenting the other’s plans.
The Medicare cuts Romney is focusing on that were used to finance the health-care law included reduced reimbursement rates to hospitals, drug companies and insurers. Yet those reductions don’t affect the benefits that seniors are guaranteed under the program.
Democrats are also seeking to put the worst spin on the Republican plan, saying Ryan’s proposal -- which wouldn’t affect people 55 or older -- amounts to scrapping Medicare for future generations. It wouldn’t do that, though some analysts have concluded that it could increase costs or reduce benefits for those future beneficiaries.
The Republican proposal would leave “new retirees with nothing but a voucher in place of the guaranteed benefits they rely on today,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said today.
That is also an exaggeration, since the latest version of Ryan’s plan -- and the one Romney proposes -- would leave seniors the choice of staying in the traditional Medicare program or taking a government subsidy to buy private insurance.
Still, Democrats are convinced that Ryan’s original plan -- one that would shift the entire system from one of set benefits to one of set payments to be used to shop for coverage -- is a political loser for the Republican ticket among voters in battleground states, particularly seniors in Florida.
“Romney’s embrace of Paul Ryan’s plan to replace guaranteed Medicare benefits with a privatized voucher program will be a game changer in Florida,” Obama’s pollsters, John Anzalone and Jeff Liszt, wrote in a memo distributed by his campaign. They said the issue has the potential to “immediately erode” Romney’s advantage with voters 65 years of age and older, a group that could prove decisive in a close election.
“Most groups, including seniors, oppose the Ryan plan even when it’s made clear that the plan would not change Medicare for people over 55,” Anzalone and Liszt wrote.
Romney’s team says it is equally certain the topic will be a boost for their candidate, allowing Republicans to criticize Obama for cutting Medicare and steering the money toward the health-care law.
“This allows us to go on offense,” Romney adviser Kevin Madden said. “We’re telling a story about why the president’s bad on Medicare, and reinforcing people’s already deep suspicions about” the health-care law and the expansion of government.
The issue has raised questions about how Romney will keep the focus on his own fiscal plans -- broad proposals on which he has generally refused to provide specifics -- when Ryan’s detailed blueprint is roundly criticized by Democrats.
For instance, the Medicare cuts for which Romney is criticizing Obama are reductions that Ryan’s budget supports. The Wisconsin congressman now says he and Romney have the same position.
“I joined the Romney ticket,” Ryan told Fox News.
The Medicare debate unfolded as the campaign took on a harsher tone. In an interview this morning with CBS News, Romney accused Obama of running a campaign of “division and attack and hatred.”
“The president seems to be running to hang on to power. I think he’ll do anything in his power to try and get re-elected,” Romney said.
It was a theme he raised in Ohio yesterday, when Romney said Obama had resorted to “a new low” in politics that features “wild and reckless allegations that disgrace the office of the presidency.”
“His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then try to cobble together 51 percent of the pieces,” Romney told about 5,000 voters who came to hear him speak in Chillicothe, Ohio.
In response, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement that Romney’s remarks “seemed unhinged.”
Earlier yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden told voters in Danville, Virginia, that Romney would “let the big banks once again write their own rules: Unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put you all back in chains.”
That drew an angry reaction from Romney. Asked about the comment in the CBS interview, Romney said Biden’s was “an unfounded charge and a metaphor which is not uplifting, not uniting, but one which is once again a divisive attack.”
At the fundraiser in Charlotte, he said Biden’s comment “just takes the White House another level lower.”
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