Romney Is Stuck Between Two Terrible Messages on Medicare

It’s hard to overstate the muddled message Republicans have had on Medicare since Paul Ryan joined the ticket last weekend. As soon as the announcement was official, Team Romney issued talking points distancing their nominee from Ryan’s budget, including his plan for Medicare. On Monday, however, Romnney took the opposite approach, telling crowds in Miami he was on the “same page” as Ryan.

The next day, Romney changed course again with an ad that hit Obama for Medicare cuts in the Affordable Care Act.  The health care bill reduces Medicare spending by $700 billion, which is used to bolster prescription drug coverage, provide preventative care for seniors, and extend Medicare's solvency. The problem: Those cuts are also included in the Ryan budget—though they're used to pay for upper-income tax cuts, and not better care for seniors. If Romney is on the same page as his running mate, then he has to embrace the cuts. If he doesn't, then there’s an area of real disagreement.

Today, the message shifted yet again. Romney appeared to accept the cuts, telling a local news interviewer that his plan for Medicare is nearly identical to Ryan’s:

Team Romney is trying to turn Medicare into an advantage for the GOP, but it’s hard to imagine a way that can work. If they continue on the current route and attack Obama for his Medicare cuts, they open themselves to the fact that—by returning to the pre-Obamacare status quo—they will reduce Medicare’s solvency by eight years. Under Romney’s plan, the trust fund would go dry in 2016, instead of the current date of 2024.

On the other hand, if Romney doubles-down on Ryan’s plan, he opens himself to the accurate charge that he’s cutting benefits for seniors. Yes, the Ryan plan preserves traditional Medicare for anyone 55 or older, and keeps it alive as a public alternative to purchasing insurance on a private market (akin to the “public option” that failed to survive the fight over health care reform). But by repealing Obamacare, Ryan raises costs for prescription drugs, and ends preventative care for seniors.

The public option for Medicare sounds like a sensible idea until you consider the prospect of an adverse selection problem: Healthy seniors opt for cheaper private plans, and the sickest stick with traditional Medicare. Eventually, the public option would collapse under the weight of the high costs generated by its small pool of sick beneficiaries.

Thanks to Ryan, Team Romney is stuck talking about Medicare. But they don’t have a winning message, or any way to change the subject for more than a few days at a time. Indeed, the more they talk about it, the worse they sound. In what could become a John Kerry-esque “I was for it before I was against it” moment, Paul Ryan argued today that he only supported Medicare cuts because they were already in the budget:

First of all, those are in the baseline, he put those cuts in. Second of all, we voted to repeal Obamacare repeatedly, including those cuts. I voted that way before the budget, I voted that way after the budget. So when you repeal all of Obamacare what you end up doing is that repeals that as well. In our budget we’ve restored a lot of that. It gets a little wonky but it was already in the baseline. We would never have done it in the first place. We voted to repeal the whole bill. I just don’t think the president’s going to be able to get out of the fact that he took $716 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare."

As is often said in politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Of course, it could be worse. We could be grilling Romney on Medicare and talking about his tax returns, or lack thereof.