When Mitt Romney announced his selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate in August, conservatives swooned for two distinct reasons. First, Ryan was existentially one of them. Second, they exulted, Ryan’s selection meant that the presidential contest would be a battle of ideas, pitting their vision of a radically shrunken state and diminished social benefits against the Democrats’ support for social guarantees and a mixed economy.
The Republicans got their battle, all right. And they’re losing it catastrophically.
What’s brought the Republican ticket down most, other than Romney’s casual slander of everyone who’s ever received government benefits, has been Ryan’s advocacy of ending Medicare as a guaranteed benefit and converting it to a voucher system. Republican support among seniors—the one age group that supported John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008, and the one that had preferred Romney over Obama in all the pre-Ryan polling—has eroded sharply. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Monday, Romney’s lead among voters 60 and over had dwindled to just four points, down from 20 two weeks previous.
Three swing-state polls of registered voters released Thursday by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation identify preserving Medicare in its current form as a decisive concern for many. Asked what Medicare should look like in the future—the current system of guaranteed benefits or a system that gave seniors a fixed amount of money to purchase insurance on their own (Ryan’s proposal, though it was not identified as such)—Florida voters preferred the current system over Ryan’s by a 65 percent to 29 percent margin. Among Ohio voters, the margin was 59 percent to 33 percent, and among Virginia voters, it was 56 percent to 35 percent. Asked whether they believed Obama or Romney would do a better job determining the future of Medicare, Florida voters preferred Obama by a 15-point margin, Ohio voters by a 19-point margin, and Virginia voters by a 13-point margin. Seniors in the three states rated Medicare as the second most important issue in this election, 51 percent of them calling it extremely important—just behind the 55 percent who called the economy extremely important. Despite all the anti-government rhetoric, Americans believe Medicare works well—a view endorsed by 70 percent of Florida voters and 91 percent of Florida seniors.
These numbers are important not only because they explain much of the Republican ticket’s decline. They also show Americans’ continuing support for programs of universal social insurance, even though Americans have never embraced the social democratic ideology per se. They’re particularly significant because of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations that will follow the election, and the insistence of business elites that any grand bargain involve considerable cuts to such programs. Cuts must and should be visited on the institutions that provide medical care, the drug companies first and foremost. But if Obama and the Democrats prevail this November in part because they defended Medicare and Social Security, reducing payments to and coverage of the beneficiaries of these programs would be an act of profound betrayal.