The 2012 election will be about Medicare and taxes

As Dan Balz says, Obama’s speech yesterday was as 2012-focused as any we’ve heard him give. “This was not a speech about dollars and cents as much as it was an appeal for Americans to think about what kind of country they want and how they define shared sacrifice,” Balz writes. But in terms of the upcoming election, I think it points to a message that’s even more specific than that. If the Obama administration has its way, the 2012 campaign will be about two things: Medicare and taxes.

Elections are about contrasts, and unlike the vague fluff that is “winning the future,” Medicare and taxes allow for the drawing of contrasts. Republicans want to privatize Medicare and cuts costs by shifting more responsibility to seniors while Democrats want to preserve the program as a defined benefit while cutting costs by clamping down on providers. Republicans refuse to consider any tax increases while Democrats strongly favor increasing taxes on, at the least, the rich.

And Democrats think they’ve got the winning position on both. Hiking taxes on the rich is popular. Remaking the Medicare program is not. Moreover, Medicare leaves Republicans on demographic defense: The GOP relies heavily on seniors, and seniors are heavily opposed to cuts in Medicare. As it happens, they like Medicare, a fact the GOP exploited very effectively in 2010. For this reason, the most popular position among Republicans is to have no cost control in Medicare at all. Only a third want major changes or a complete overhaul — and to call Ryan’s plan anything less than a complete overhaul is to insult it.

But Ryan has committed to keeping all of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicare cuts — the same cuts Republicans ran against in 2010 — and then privatizing and voucherizing the program. House Republicans are very likely to pass his plan with something close to unanimous support Friday. Democrats, meanwhile, are pledging to protect the program. That leaves the GOP in a very awkward position with seniors, and if the GOP ends up having to spend this election trying to hold onto their core supporters, they’ve already lost.

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