The GOP's Medicare Toughness Gap

Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential candidate, and his wife, Ann, at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa Photograph by Damon Winter/The New York Times via Redux

Wednesday morning’s Tampa Tribune captured—unwittingly, I think—one of the major emerging tensions here at the GOP convention. It’s the tension between those Republicans who want to tell “hard truths” and make tough choices to limit entitlement spending, even if doing so risks alienating certain voters, and those who are notionally committed to such cuts but believe that saying so is too politically dangerous.

Photograph by Joshua Green

The Tribune headline is a reference to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s speech Tuesday night in which he lined up with the “hard truths” crowd. Proponents of this view tend to include the younger Republican governors like Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, but also Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin—at least the Paul Ryan prior to his joining the Republican ticket.

The unwitting tension on the front page of the Tribune lies in the photo of Mitt Romney that accompanies the headline. Romney is the furthest thing from a hard truther (so much so that I wondered for a moment if Christie wasn’t setting him up by promising the crowd that Romney would tell hard truths if elected president).

A good example of what I’m talking about arose this morning in an exchange with Walker about Medicare reform at a Bloomberg/Washington Post breakfast. Walker wants to address Medicare and is admirably blunt about the trade-offs inherent in reform—namely, that future seniors will have to accept reduced benefits if the program is to remain solvent for later generations. Here’s what he said:

“I think that voters, particularly seniors, like my parents or like Paul [Ryan]‘s mother, are … open to that [debate] … because in the end, what do our parents care about more than anything? Their grandchildren. Grandparents care more than Medicare, more than Social Security, more than anything else, they care about their grandchildren.”

Romney also believes it’s necessary to cut Medicare, but he’s terrified of upsetting seniors. (Apparently, he doesn’t agree that they care more about their grandkids.) Over the last few weeks, his campaign has been running television ads attacking Obama for the $716 billion that will be cut from Medicare under the health-care law and promising to restore it if Romney is elected. So not only is Romney unwilling to tell hard truths, but he’d actually increase the cost of Medicare. It’s noteworthy that a plan Ryan proposed kept those $716 billion in cuts. When he joined the ticket, he abandoned that plan and signed onto Romney’s.

Going forward, this will be an enduring tension in the party. Republicans have a “toughness gap” that Romney, despite Wednesday’s headline, doesn’t appear willing to close.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.