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May 17, 2011

What Should The 2012 Republican Hopefuls Say About The Ryan Plan?

The Daily Caller has a post saying more GOP candidates are likely to come out against the Ryan plan. They don’t really make the case beyond talking to a couple of "analysts" but it got me thinking about how a candidate can and should handle what is likely to be a hot topic.

As Newt Gingrich demonstrated nicely over the weekend, the Ryan plan is something of a landmine for those running for the GOP nomination. I think it’s safe to say Ryan and his plan are popular with the base (at least as it exists in the blogosphere and commentary class). The FY12 Budget Resolution passed by the House was Ryan’s work and included the outline of his reform plan making it the official position of the House GOP.

While not everyone will be on board with every aspect of his work, Ryan has certainly gained respect and credibility for putting forward a plan. This is opposed to Newt who has called for a “national conversation” on Medicare and the President who has given a speech or two and demagogued Ryan but mostly demagogued Ryan.

Proposing to reform Medicare is as politically dangerous as it is fiscally necessary. It’s unlikely that any reform proposal is going to be popular. The Weekly Standard tries to put a good light on some of the recent bad poll numbers on support for reform but if you are relying on properly worded poll questions, an informed electorate and balanced reporting, you are really just hoping for unicorns and rainbows. And that’s before the Democrats, unions and AARP to turn the scare and lie machine up to ELEVENTY!!!11!1. The fact that the political and media environment will be stacked against reform simply has to be taken as a given and baked into the cake.

Yes, there will be a core group of support that includes many conservatives, people who can do math and most of the tea party activists. Though a good bit of tea party support comes from seniors and those closing in on retirement, don’t be surprised if a significant percentage of that group turns out to be in a “me first” mood at the cost of some core principles (though at this point the Ryan plan does well with this group).

So knowing this and the fact that Medicare scare tactics (“They are going to cut 75 year old grandmothers who have played by the rules all their lives from Medicare) are going to be focused on swing states like Ohio and Florida (especially Florida), what is a GOP primary hopeful and eventually a nominee to do?

Embrace the plan? Punt? Attack it?

The answer will obviously depend on the candidate and their overall needs but my advice would be…punt with a twist.

I know, it sounds like an exercise in cowardice. It’s also an exercise in winning. For the most part I understand why candidates won’t want to embrace the plan. First, as I’ve laid out, it’s politically dangerous. Second and more honorably, if you’re running for President you presumably have your own thoughts and philosophy on how to tackle the problem. If Ryan wants to see his plan enacted more or less as he envisions it, he should run. Short of that, there’s no requirement that a candidate adopt a non-candidates position lock, stock and barrel. They should make the right respectful statements of course, “It’s an interesting plan that highlights the dangers we are facing and demonstrates that Republicans are committed to protecting seniors now or about to enter the Medicare program while creating new and fiscally sound opportunities for future generations. Blah, blah, blah” but that's about the end of their obligation to this specific plan.

The twist on this “punt” is in the way they separate themselves from it. I think in this environment to be viable in the primaries you have to have some sort of plan or at least plausible commitment to the issue beyond the normal talking points. In the past, all candidates said something about “preserving Medicare but making it smarter, better more efficient” and then nothing got done. The Ryan plan and it’s adoption by the GOP in the House makes it clear that the usual noises are just that…noises. They simply sound even more hollow and feckless in comparison to the detailed plan on the table.

People will hate this but I think the model for this is Obama’s talk on healthcare. Remember that he ran on an idea that just a tweak here, a tweak there, a little hope a little change and it’ll be fine. He even explicitly ran against the individual mandate. But when he was elected? Change indeed.

He basically campaigned on centrist talking points about the substance of reforms but signaled to his base with a wink and nod that he was really with them. Most importantly, and here’s where I think Republicans need to be clear, Obama never left any doubt that there would be at least an effort at health care reform. He fudged on the details, not the need to address the issue.

You may say that this is bait and switch and look at the trouble it got Obama in 2 years later. I would argue that what got Obama in trouble was not lying about his general position in the campaign but his lies about what was in the eventual proposals and law. You don’t have to campaign on a specific point by point plan but on a general philosophy (protecting those on Medicare now or will be soon, reforming for future recipients but in a fiscally sound way that ensures future access and is fiscally responsible, a mixture of savings and additional freedom and control for individuals, etc).

What got Obama and the Democrats in trouble in 09-10 was they lied about what the actual legislation would do (“It will bend the cost curve down”, “If you like your plan you can keep it”, “We aren’t cutting Medicare”, “We’re reducing the deficit” etc, not to mention the midnight votes and the rest of the process). Most importantly, they lied about the whole purpose of “reform”. It wasn’t ever to help people who already had insurance, it was to expand coverage to people who didn’t (and who happened to be an important part of their base).

If the GOP gets the House, Senate and White House in 2012, we have to be fair and honest during the debate to get public buy in. It’s called leadership. What we don’t have to do is get buy in for a specific plan during the ‘12 campaign because no specific plan ever survives the legislative process. We don’t have referenda on policy plans or bills at the national level in this country. What we do is elect representatives to hash that all out later. Why waste political capital on something that would go in the trash on Day One of Congress?

Is it a dodge? A little bit.

Would it be better to run on the Ryan plan and get a mandate? Theoretically but what good is a mandate you may never get to exercise?

Playing to the people who are already on board with this kind of reform is useless, they are by definition supporters. What the GOP has to do is honestly talk about reform in broad strokes and make it clear some sort of reform will happen.

The media, Democrats and Obama (let me Venn Diagram that for you: O) will
demand the GOP candidate produce a thousand page draft bill in the name of “specifics” but that’s just so they will have something to club the candidate over the head with. Don’t play the game. Fight the legislative battle where it counts, in Congress, not on the presidential campaign trail.

We should give our primary candidates some room for plausible deniability. We need to know that they are with us without forcing them to swear on bended knee fidelity to a specific plan. Of course it’s their job to figure a way to signal they are ‘one of us’ while preserving some freedom of rhetoric and action for the wider electorate. It’s not an easy balance but if you want to be President, that’s what big league politics takes.

Then we have to hold them to it. As we see with this year’s budget battle…follow up and accountability is just as important as winning an election.

What GOP contenders can not and must not do is attack the plan. Newt was never a viable option in my mind but now he’s no different from a Democrat. For better or worse, the Ryan plan is the official plan of the only part of the GOP to actually have electoral success. You can't claim leadership of a party by attacking it's legislative agenda. Cutting the House GOP off at the knees and giving the Democrats cheap talking points is simply disqualifying. Period. End of story.

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posted by DrewM. at 01:01 PM

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