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.
Wyden, with a solidly liberal voting record, may seem to be an unlikely partner in this enterprise. But he has consistently favored adding elements of market competition to our health care system.
He was one of the relatively few Democrats who provided necessary support for Part D in 2003. And in 2008, he and Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah put forward a health care proposal based on eliminating the current tax preference for employer-provided health insurance.
That preference creates incentives to increase costs, and health policy experts of both left and right have argued for its elimination. But Barack Obama gave Wyden-Bennett the back of his hand and supported a plan that would centralize control in the federal government.
The Obama White House was quick to reject Ryan-Wyden, as well. While Obama has said on occasion that the current Medicare program is not sustainable in the long term, he is now firmly in campaign mode and uninterested in anything other than bashing Republicans for hurting seniors.
Ryan-Wyden makes this kind of cheap-shot politics more difficult. And it comes when a recent poll showed that only 29 percent of voters -- less than one in three -- support the Obamacare legislation. So it's no surprise that Obama prefers Mediscare tactics to defending his administration's largest legislative accomplishment.
The Republican candidates are united in their determination to repeal Obamacare, and repeal is a realistic possibility if Republicans should sweep the 2012 elections as they did in 2010. Ryan-Wyden also renders long-term Medicare reform a realistic possibility.
Ryan-Wyden helps to frame the health care issue in the presidential election as a choice between big government control and market competition. That does not help Obama.
Gallup reports that 64 percent of Americans regard big government, as opposed to big business or big labor, as "the biggest threat to the country in the future." That's just one point under the all-time high since Gallup began asking the question in 1965.
So it's not surprising that Romney and Gingrich saw fit to praise Wyden and that other Democrats are angry with him. But Wyden shows that at least one Democrat, even in campaign season, is more interested in good public policy than in politics.
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