Salena Zito

With the 2012 election approaching, you wouldn’t expect to hear one of Washington’s savviest Democratic strategists praise Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., for his budget plan on Medicare.

“Any time you hand your opponent a club, knowing full well he is going to beat you over the head with it for 18 long months, that is courageous,” the strategist says.

Democrats’ 2012 slogan will be that Ryan – and everyone else with “Republican” attached to their names – is taking Medicare from seniors.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius began late last week, saying that Ryan’s proposal will lead to early deaths among seniors.

One Republican strategist says his party can’t allow Democrats to “get away with the fundamental dishonesty” of frightening “every senior on Medicare today” because “they know darned well the program will remain unchanged for anyone 55 or older.”

Yet “Medi-scare” is a strategy that worked for Democrats before. Will it work again?

“It has to,” explains the Democratic strategist. “To win back the House, maintain the Senate and re-elect the president, Democrats have to win back the senior vote, split the independent voters, and get Obama to leverage minorities and the youth again.”

It all rests on the “Medi-scare” message.

“Seniors are upset with what they are hearing from the GOP,” said Chris Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University of Ohio. “That will help Obama as he paints the GOP as willing to throw grandpa under the train, as well as forcing people to work late in their lives.”

Yet there is a problem for Democrats: If they don't have a serious deficit-reduction plan in the next six to 12 months, our debt will be downgraded, unemployment will soar and the president will lose re-election.

Expect a battle within the Obama administration, between those political advisers inclined to demagogue Republicans on spending cuts and those pragmatists and economists who want a deficit-reduction deal that includes entitlement cuts and spending increases, according to Robert Maranto, a University of Arkansas political scientist.

“If the pragmatists and economists win, the president will get a serious deficit-reduction plan through Congress, the economy will improve and Barack Obama will be a two-termer,” Maranto predicts.

If not, then no deficit deal will occur, the economy will tank and the president will lose – unless Republicans nominate a whackadoodle.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.