It's highly unusual in a presidential debate for two Republican candidates -- the two leading in current national polls -- to heap praise on a liberal Democratic senator.
But in the Fox News debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday night, both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney had very good words to say for Oregon's Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden.
The subject was the Medicare reform plan put forward in a Wall Street Journal opinion article that morning by Wyden and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.
"Today is a big day for the country," Romney said. It was "an enormous achievement" for Ryan and Wyden, people on opposite sides of the aisle, to come together.
Gingrich, harshly criticized last May for calling Ryan's earlier Medicare plan "right-wing social engineering," went out of his way to say that Romney had produced "a very good plan" for Medicare and that it was "brave" for Wyden to join Ryan in their bipartisan plan.
Politicians' praise is sometimes bestowed overlavishly, but in this case it was well merited. Ryan-Wyden represents a major step forward in public policy and gives hope that the Medicare entitlement can be rendered sustainable.
The Ryan-Wyden proposal provides for continuation of the current Medicare program for those now over age 55. For those younger, it would introduce in 2022 a "premium-support" system that would allow Medicare recipients to choose between the current program and a Medicare-approved private plan.
Those plans would be presented in competitive bidding and would have to be as comprehensive as traditional Medicare and would have to accept anyone who applied. There would be subsidies for low-income seniors.
Private insurers would thus have an incentive to design plans that would offer more generous benefits and lower costs than current Medicare. This kind of market competition has proved effective in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program enacted in 2003. Costs have been lower than government projections, and beneficiary satisfaction has been high.
Ryan-Wyden differs from the Medicare plan Ryan presented last spring by offering the option of keeping the current Medicare system. That is also a feature of the Medicare proposals of candidates Romney and Gingrich.