If entitlement reform is the third rail of American politics, then there is no place in America where the surge is more powerful than Florida. The Sunshine State has more Medicare recipients than any state in the union except California — making Florida ground zero for the Democrats’ coming “Medi-scare” campaign. So it is significant that, while some Republicans have been distancing themselves from Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed Medicare overhaul, Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio, has emerged in recent weeks as Ryan’s most ardent public defender.
In the wake of the recent New York special election — where Democrats captured a long-time Republican seat while demagoguing Ryan’s proposal — Rubio has been everywhere defending Ryan and challenging the Democrats who criticize his plan to offer one of their own. After the vote, Rubio penned an Miami Herald op-ed backing Ryan, posted a YouTube video, and went on the airwaves to make the case for Ryan’s proposal.
I asked Rubio why he was sticking his neck out — after all, isn’t taking on Medicare the political kiss of death in Florida? Quite the opposite, Rubio says. “The flip side of that is if there is any state in the country that should be scared of Medicare going bankrupt it’s Florida. So that’s exactly why I’m involved in this issue. Because we have millions of recipients in Florida — and one of them is my mother.”
Rubio’s support for Medicare is genuine and personal. When his 83-year old father became ill, Medicare covered his repeated hospital visits and then paid for hospice care, allowing him to die with dignity last September. Rubio says: “I think Medicare is important. I think a country as rich and prosperous as the United States can’t afford not to have Medicare.”
But, he explains, “There is a reason to be worried about the future of Medicare, and it’s not because of the Ryan plan. It’s because Medicare is running out of money.” He points to the report issued last month by Medicare’s trustees which found that the Medicare trust fund will run dry in 2024 — five years earlier than they had forecast just last year. And he warns, “The truth is that if we don’t solve this problem, we’re going to lose Medicare. And history is not going to be kind to anybody up here, Republican or Democrat, if we let that happen.”
For those who criticize Ryan, Rubio asks: “If it’s not the Ryan plan, well then what plan is it? The White House has not offered one. The Senate Democrat leadership has not offered one.. . . They have not offered a budget, much less a plan to save Medicare.” The Democrats’ refusal to do so, while viciously attacking Ryan’s approach, leads Rubio to one inescapable conclusion: “The Democrats don’t have a plan because they have decided that playing politics is more important than saving Medicare.”
That does not frighten Rubio in the least. He is a senior-scare survivor. During his Senate race last fall, former Florida governor Charlie Crist ran false ads accusing Rubio of wanting to cut Social Security benefits for seniors. Rubio stuck to his guns, made his case and prevailed with almost 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race. His advice for candidates facing similar tactics on Medicare this election cycle is simple: “Tell people the truth. Medicare is going bankrupt. And we need to save it. Right now there is a plan in Washington to save it called the Ryan plan.. . . Whoever has a better plan than Ryan’s plan to save Medicare, I think they shouldn’t waste any more time, and they should offer it. If they don’t have any plan, then they need to admit that. And they need to admit that what they want to do is play politics with Medicare.”
Ryan’s Medicare proposal has been front and center in Florida’s Republican Senate primary. One of the candidates, former senator George LeMieux, at first refused to endorse the Ryan plan, claiming he had a better approach, but he finally declared that he would have voted it. Another, state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, was asked on a conservative radio show whether he supports the Ryan plan and repeatedly refused to answer — leading the program’s host to hang up on him in frustration. By contrast, state House Republican leader Adam Hasner has shown Rubio-like courage on the issue — embracing the Ryan plan and declaring: “While others stick their fingers in the wind . . . I remain steadfast in my support [for the Ryan plan].. . . Unlike my opponents, I would vote for the plan without hesitation.”
Rubio believes that Republicans have nothing to fear in the Medicare debate because “We’re serious about solving this problem.” Voters will reward that seriousness if the GOP “unambiguously explain[s] to voters that Medicare is going bankrupt, that it is too important of a program to let go bankrupt, that we have to save Medicare, and that we have to do it now.” For Republicans looking for a way to fight Medi-scare, Marco Rubio is showing the way.