I've spent the afternoon at Americans for Prosperity's "Defending the Dream" conference here in Washington, which runs through tomorrow. Earlier this afternoon, the top two Republican candidates for president -- Herman Cain and Mitt Romney -- both addressed the gathering. AFP's activists are grassroots Tea Party conservatives, so I was eager to see how the audience would greet each frontrunner. Romney spoke first, and was met with polite applause. As he gradually warmed to the task, the crowd grew more receptive to his message, the substance of which I'll address in a moment. The former Massachusetts Governor concluded his speech by thanking attendees for their work on behalf of the cause, and left the stage to a partial, quasi-enthusiastic standing ovation. After a brief interlude, which featured brief and funny remarks from columnist Jonah Goldberg, Herman Cain took the room by storm. As if to defy the media firestorm that has consumed Cain's campaign since Sunday, the audience showered Cain with a lengthy, enthusiastic, loud ovation. Even the most committed pro-Romney partisan could not have denied the enthusiasm gulf that separated the two candidates among these activists. Cain delivered his standard stump speech, hitting every applause line with precision. Two small deviations: He spent some time pushing back against certain conservative critiques of his 9-9-9 tax plan, and he went out of his way to embrace his connection to the Koch brothers, two of the Left's bete noirs. Mocking a New York Times story that breathlessly reported a connection between Cain and the Kochs, the candidate said, "I'm very proud to know the Koch brothers." Then came the punchline:
Romney's speech was significantly more technocratic and placid. Shocking, I realize. He cited his executive experience in Massachusetts and the private sector, then detailed his role as the financial savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. I'd never heard him address that subject at length before, and it was a pretty compelling narrative. Romney proceeded to roll out his spending and debt control plan, which the crowd cheered with varying degrees of earnesty. The most interesting portion of his speech dealt with his plan on entitlements reform. It was the least vague, most specific series of statements I've heard from Romney on these issues. Though was a tad cautious, the policies themselves sound pretty familiar -- in a good way:
President Obama has failed to articulate a single serious idea to save Social Security. I believe we can save Social Security with a few commonsense reforms. First, there will be no change for retirees or those near retirement. No change. Second, for the next generation of retirees, we should slowly raise the retirement age. And, finally, for the next generation of retirees, we should slow the growth in benefits for those with higher incomes.
While President Obama has been silent on Social Security, his agenda for Medicare is disastrous. He’s the only president in modern history who has cut Medicare for seniors—do not forget, it was President Obama who cut $500 billion from Medicare, not to preserve it or sustain it, but to pay for his vaunted Obamacare. And he put the future of Medicare in the hands of 15 unelected bureaucrats. These bureaucrats have the power to enact further cuts to Medicare without congressional approval, even if those cuts overturn a law previously passed by Congress. President Obama’s so-called Medicare reforms could lead to the rationing or denial of care for seniors on Medicare. Unlike President Obama, our next president must protect Medicare, improve the program, and keep it sustainable for generations to come. Several principles will guide my efforts.
First, Medicare should not change for anyone in the program or soon to be in it. We should honor our commitments to our seniors. Second, as with Social Security, tax hikes are not the solution. We couldn’t tax our way out of unfunded liabilities so large, even if we wanted to. Third, tomorrow’s seniors should have the freedom to choose what their health coverage looks like. Younger Americans today, when they turn 65, should have a choice between traditional Medicare and other private healthcare plans that provide at least the same level of benefits. Competition will lower costs and increase the quality of healthcare for tomorrow’s seniors. The federal government will help seniors pay for the option they choose, with a level of support that ensures all can obtain the coverage they need. Those with lower incomes will receive more generous assistance. Beneficiaries can keep the savings from less expensive options, or they can choose to pay more for a costlier plan.
Finally, as with Social Security, the eligibility age should slowly increase to keep pace with increases in longevity. These ideas will give tomorrow’s seniors the same kinds of choices that most Americans have in their healthcare today. The future of Medicare should be marked by competition, choice, and innovation—rather than bureaucracy, stagnation, and bankruptcy. Our path for the future of Social Security and Medicare is honesty and security, theirs is demagoguery and deception.
Much of that sounds...a lot like Paul Ryan's excellent Path to Prosperity. A few significant differences: (1) Romney's plan actually goes into a bit more specificity on Social Security, on which the Path is largely silent, and (2) Romney's Medicare stance offers the traditional program as an option. He didn't use the words "premium support" like Ryan does, but he came awfully close, stating that the needier would receive more government "assistance." As it turns out, Paul Ryan recently huddled with Romney about entitlement reform. His verdict on the plan laid out today?
“Look at what he put out!" [Ryan said]. "This is a great development. It shows that the elusive adult conversation is taking place, but all on one side.” He ticked off the proposals including block-granting, cutting the federal workforce and entitlement reform. He said, “This tracks perfectly with the House budget.” He was careful not to forget the other GOP candidates, adding that “Romney and others are serious” about real fiscal reform.
I asked him about Romney’s decision to offer traditional Medicare as one option in the premium support plan. He said that he and former Fed vice chairwoman Alice Rivlin had discussed that idea, and so long as the government, as Romney detailed, would provide a capped amount to be used either for traditional Medicare or for private plans, the same cost savings could be obtained under Romney’s plan as under the plan Ryan proposed as part of the 2012 budget. Ryan deemed this approach as “perfectly in keeping with serious reform.”
That's significant praise from a guy who hasn't been bashful about criticizing Romney on policy in the fairly recent past. Another Romney critic, healthcare expert Yuval Levin was also "impressed" by the plan. Team Romney had a good day.