Banking on Medi-Scare

Salena Zito

5/8/2011 12:01:00 AM - 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.

Americans live and vote largely in real time, over what affects them at the moment.

At this moment, Democrats are losing over high gas prices and home foreclosures, a depressed real estate market, high unemployment, and declining wages and incomes.

The midterm election of 2010 proved that voters don’t buy the Democrats’ line that it’s all George Bush’s fault. While voters still don’t trust Republicans, they trust Democrats even less.

“The Ryan plan is manna from heaven for the Democrats,” said Bert Rockman, a political science professor at Indiana’s Purdue University, “except … that nobody knows what the Ryan plan is.”

Not much probably can be done about the deficit until after 2012.

The problem is, people like federal benefits; they just don’t want to pay for them. Politicians and labor unions have done a spectacular job of convincing us that we’re entitled to those expensive benefits.

Our governmental structure makes it extremely difficult to make tough decisions. And the two-party system, polarized as it is, makes it very difficult to come to agreement.

“So we have a better chance, ultimately, of looking like Greece than Germany,” said Rockman, “and that’s not a happy thought.”

Democrats have heavy arithmetic against them, from House reapportionment to their disproportionate share of Senate seats up for election in 2012.

Rockman thinks 2012 could be another 2000: “My most likely scenario for 2012, from the perspective of a year-and-a-half out, is that the Democrats eat into some of the Republican margin in the House – maybe 15 to 20 seats; the Republicans narrowly take over the Senate; and President Barack Obama scrapes by on … the weakness of the Republican candidate.”

Last week, first-time unemployment claims rose and the housing market dipped back to March 2009 numbers. Inflation concerns heighten daily, driven by gas and food prices.

It’s hard to push feel-good rhetoric unless people feel good.

Right now, they don’t – and for good reason.