Democrats, eager to win back the seniors and independents who abandoned the party in last year’s midterm elections, have declared the vote a “moment of truth” and this week launched a media campaign accusing GOP House members of dismantling Medicare and endangering retirees.
The assault has taken some Republicans by surprise, prompting concerns that the party is ceding ground in a policy debate that GOP strategists already viewed as perilous.
Some Republicans fear a repeat of 2005, when President George W. Bush tried to turn the political capital of his reelection into a push to privatize Social Security. Republicans abandoned the effort after Democrats vigorously attacked them, accusing the GOP of trying to cut benefits.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll published this week found that two-thirds of Americans want Medicare to remain as is. That includes 62 percent of independents and nearly eight in 10 people 65 and older — making for an uphill climb for House Republicans trying to reassure constituents.
“People have to believe there’s a fundamental problem with Medicare that has to be fixed,” said Carl Forti, a veteran GOP strategist. “If they don’t believe there’s a problem, then why would they support a change?”
Republican officials said they understood the political risks of tackling entitlements, but they point to other polling numbers showing that the public supports spending cuts and tends to trust Republicans more than Democrats on fiscal issues.
“Republicans don’t want to be talking about Medicare every day for the next year and a half,” said a Republican Party official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address internal strategy deliberations. “But if they keep the conversation on broader issues of spending and taxes, they can win.”
The GOP official added that the party “can fight the Medicare issue to a tie” by “muddying the waters” and painting Democrats as choosing status-quo options that would have Medicare “die a slow death.”
The tensions underscore the central role Medicare is likely to play in the upcoming policy battles over spending cuts — and then in election campaigns next year.
President Obama and House Republicans said they are open to tweaking Social Security, but neither side has revealed detailed plans — in effect removing that program, at the moment, from the partisan cauldron.
The GOP budget plan drew overwhelming support this month from the House Republican majority, with just four members voting against it.
The Medicare provision, one piece of the larger document drafted by House Budget Committee
Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), would fundamentally change Medicare from the federal entitlement it has been since the 1960s. Seniors who join Medicare in 2022 and beyond would receive subsidies, or “premium supports,” to help pay for private insurance they would buy on their own.