What’s most noteworthy about the new Medicare-themed ad that the Obama campaign unveiled today is its defensive tone. The spot opens by referring back to a Romney ad that claims the president “robbed” $716 billion to pay for the new healthcare reform law, then contrasts AARP’s favorable assessment of Obama’s actions on Medicare with its ominous take on what Paul Ryan has proposed.
There’s a lot going on here, and that might be problematic for Obama.
Medicare is a supremely popular program, and attempts to cut or alter it dramatically always poll terribly. The hope for the Obama team is to replicate the success that Bill Clinton and Democrats enjoyed in 1996, when they positioned themselves as the last line of defense between Medicare and the Republicans who would (in the famous words of Newt Gingrich) let it “wither on the vine.”
But the issue is more complicated in this year’s campaign, because of the Medicare changes that Obama made through the Affordable Care Act. That the law cuts spending by $716 billion over 10 years is true, but the reductions do not affect benefits; instead, they’re aimed at hospital reimbursement rates and the excessively costly Medicare Advantage private insurance program, with smaller cuts for home healthcare providers and others. What’s more, Ryan’s own Medicare plan, which House Republicans almost unanimously endorsed (and which Romney has indicated he would have signed as president), upholds all of these cuts. But Ryan says he’s now running on the Romney plan, not his own, and the Romney plan (such as it is) calls for wiping out the Medicare cuts.
It’s all rather slippery, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work. The upshot is that Romney and Ryan are now running around blasting Obama for making savage cuts in Medicare, and running ads to the same effect. This, of course, is also what Republicans did in the 2010 midterms, when their landslide was keyed in part by an anti-Obama backlash among senior citizens. This complicates Obama’s hopes of replicating Clinton’s reelection strategy. Clinton never had to answer for his own cuts; he could just fire away at the “Dole-Gingrich” attempt to raid Medicare. Obama’s task is trickier. He has to explain his own actions first, then pivot to an attack on his rivals. As Greg Sargent points out, all the GOP needs to do here is to muddy the waters enough that swing voters throw up their hands in confusion and move on to other issues – like the economy.
If there’s a silver lining for the Obama side, it’s that voters still instinctively regard his party to be more supportive of Medicare than the GOP. A poll a few months ago found that voters trust Democrats over Republicans by a 40-24 percent margin to look out for the program. Obama has also enjoyed a wide advantage over congressional Republicans on this front. The gap is tighter when Romney enters the picture; a poll of swing state voters this week found Obama running 8 points ahead of Romney, 42 to 34 percent, on who would better handle Medicare. By comparison, Clinton was running more than 20 points ahead of Dole on the issue at this point in ’96. (Of course, he was also running about 20 points ahead of Dole in the horse race.)
That said, voters are more inclined to give Obama and Democrats the benefit of the doubt on Medicare than Romney and the GOP. And the Democratic assault on Ryan-ism is only beginning. The polls may look different a few weeks, or months, from now. But just because Romney’s running mate is the author of a reviled Medicare plan doesn’t necessarily mean that the GOP ticket will pay a price for it.