The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: How eight years – and President Trump – have changed the GOP's tune on Medicare

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In this edition: The party of Medicare, the persistence of Trump in blue states, the legal marijuana boom, and the Chapo vote.

I am feeling a powerful backlash from conservative voters, and this is The Trailer.

Four weeks from today, Republicans will try to hold on to the House of Representatives with a message that buries the tea party movement deep underground: Keep us in charge, and we won't touch Medicare or Social Security.

In TV spots, Republican candidates promise that they'll protect entitlements and save the most popular parts of the Affordable Care Act. In attack ads, the National Republican Congressional Committee warns that Democrats "support cutting $800 billion from Medicare." In debates, Republican candidates argue that Democrats who favor Medicare-for-all would bring about "Medicare for None." 

On Monday, in a speech at the National Press Club, departing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) warned that any Democratic plan to expand Medicare "actually ends Medicare in its current form." That was the same phrase Democrats, citing the Wall Street Journal, used to describe Ryan's old plan to turn Medicare from an entitlement into a "premium support" program. But in his speech this week, Ryan ditched any talk of change to warn that Democrats would break a system that was working for most people.

"While we have worked to lower health-care costs, Democrats propose to abolish our health-care system as we know it," Ryan said.

Since 2010, when Ryan helped power a GOP takeover of the House, Republicans' attacks on Democratic health-care plans haven't changed. Then, they warned that the Affordable Care Act would lead to rationing and cuts to Medicare. (The ACA cut long-term Medicare spending at least $700 billion — by cutting payments to providers while expanding coverage for recipients.) In 2012, as a candidate for vice president, Ryan insisted that Republicans would preserve Medicare as it was and change the program only for young people, who were years away from entering the system.

"Mitt Romney and I know the difference between protecting a program and raiding it," Ryan said at that year's Republican National Convention.

Two years later, he urged Republicans to adopt his "road map for America's future," a vision for "an opportunity society with a safety net." Anyone under 55, he said, would be allowed to opt out of Social Security and into a private account system. Anyone under 55 would, instead of Medicare's guaranteed benefit, get "the resources they need to choose from a list of diverse Medicare-certified plans." Medicaid recipients would get a stipend "to buy their own health-care coverage like everyone else," replacing the single-payer coverage they got from the state.

But over eight years, Republicans have completely given up on the idea of cutting Social Security or Medicare to reduce the deficit. In 2010, through the budget negotiations of 2011, they argued that cuts had to be on the table to get the country's budget under control. This year, in campaign after campaign, Republicans have abandoned that rhetoric. Like the president, they argue that Medicare and Social Security are sacrosanct and that a growing economy will take care of any shortfall.

Donald Trump changed the Republican Party in a number of ways; the most impactful was, arguably, his insistence that there was no need to change Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. That ignored years of ideological effort, mostly in Washington, to use the issue of federal debt as a way of getting the parties on board with entitlement restructuring. And it worked; Trump won over voters who had not backed a Republican for president since the 1980s, if ever, with his strongest support coming from older voters.

This year, Republicans have largely abandoned the idea that the entitlements need to be restructured to cut the debt. The debt has so dramatically faded as an issue that Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), who chairs the Joint Economic Committee, celebrated in a Tuesday morning statement that the deficit was only $782 billion. Why? That was "$22 billion less than CBO projected it would be earlier this year."

The deficit was up over 2018, which Paulsen blamed on increased federal spending. But both parties signed off on the funding packages that raised federal spending, mostly by wiping away the mandatory defense spending cuts that resulted from the 2011 debt negotiations.

The Republican Party that fought for those spending cuts had defined itself as a break from the old Republican Party, the one that expanded the welfare state and blew off worry about debt. The Republican Party that Ryan is leaving behind is now defending most of the welfare state that President Barack Obama left behind, and warning that new, more radical Democrats would blow it up to create bigger government.

Another example: At a Monday night debate in Wisconsin, Leah Vukmir, who was endorsed by Ryan in her tight primary, warned that Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) would end private insurance if her "Medicare-for-all" plan became law. But that was not all. Baldwin, she said, would put Medicare at risk, and Republicans would try only to get rid of the unpopular parts of the ACA and keep everything else as it was.

"Under her plan the Affordable Care Act goes away; Medicare goes away," Vukmir said.


Minnesota Senate. No poll has showed Sen. Tina Smith (D) in serious trouble, but Republicans are scanning the map for upsets, and the president has made two campaign stops that highlighted her opponent, Karin Housley. Smith's response has been to run as a get-things-done liberal, an approach you're seeing in plenty of Midwestern swing seats. If you try to count the number of ads in which Democrats walk through a shop floor and talk about job training, you'll run out of fingers.

Rhode Island Governor. The Democratic Governors Association's "Alliance for a Better Rhode Island" is attacking GOP nominee Allan Fung, saying he "supported Trump every step of the way." Democratic incumbent Gina Raimondo, who's struggled to bring up her approval ratings, has been steadily leading Fung in what's essentially a three-way race; Democrats in blue states see the Trump connection as the easiest way to discredit Republicans.

Texas 32. Conservatives say Democrats will be hurt by the image of protesters heckling Republicans and getting in their faces. The new ad from Democrat Colin Allred leans right into that debate, with footage of Rep. Pete Sessions (R) telling a town hall crowd that they "don't listen."

Virginia 10: The NRCC will either be proved triumphantly right or disastrously wrong in GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock's race. Their latest spot, part of a $5 million buy, accuses Democrat Jennifer Wexton of "letting dangerous predators off easy," focusing particularly on a reduced sentence for an "illegal immigrant who abducted and raped his victim four times." That case has been used against Wexton before, most recently in a 2014 special election that she won by 15 points. Democrats continue to think Republicans are burning money for an unwinnable race; the NRCC insists that Comstock is being underrated. A Washington Post poll released today found Wexton up 12 points.

West Virginia Senate. No poll since May has shown Sen. Joe Manchin (D) in trouble here, but the Senate Majority PAC is continuing to pound GOP nominee Patrick Morrisey over his biggest vulnerability: his past lobbying for the Healthcare Distribution Management Association. Democrats have used that to pin the opioid crisis on the GOP attorney general and, just as importantly, to deflect from any Morrisey attacks on Manchin's daughter, the CEO of the company that makes EpiPens. 


Generic Ballot ( CNN/SSRS, 739 Likely Voters)
Democrats - 54%
Republicans - 41%

CNN's polling has provided election narratives all year, finding some short-lived Democratic collapses in the spring and a surge in the summer. This survey, conducted over the period when Brett M. Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, finds a 30-point lead for Democrats among all female voters. Among registered voters, the Democrats' lead has fallen from last month, from 11 points to 9 points. But the biggest gulf between this poll and the polls that helped drive last week's "Kavanaugh backlash" storyline, is the enthusiasm gap. The percentage of "extremely" or "very" enthusiastic Republicans has bumped from 50 to 53 percent; Democrats jumped from 55 to 62 percent.

Legalize marijuana in Michigan (Detroit News/WDIV, 600 Likely Voters)
Yes - 62%
No - 35%

The pivotal state in the 2016 election, the birthplace of the Reagan Democrat, Michigan is likely to become the first Midwestern state to end the prohibition of marijuana for recreational use. It's been a sleeper issue in the race for governor; Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer came out for legalization early, a stance that helped her lead and then defeat a left-wing challenger. Michigan voters are also on track to pass voting and nonpartisan redistricting reform, but legal marijuana is growing as a winning, defining issue for Democrats.

Illinois 14 (NYT/Siena, 501 Voters)
Randy Hultgren (R) - 47%
Lauren Underwood (D) - 43%

This is exactly the sort of district where a Republican win would suggest that the Democratic wave stopped once it rolled through the suburbs. Fifty-one percent of voters in this greater Chicago district favor a "check" on the president, yet a majority support him and a plurality wanted Kavanaugh confirmed. Hultgren won by 19 points in 2016; it doesn't look like he'll do that again. Underwood, a first-time candidate, announced Tuesday that she'd raised $2 million in the third quarter, nearly doubling her haul so far.

Maryland Governor (Washington Post/University of Maryland, 648 Likely Voters)
Larry Hogan (R) - 58%
Ben Jealous (D) - 38%

Hogan has never ceded control of this race; the question is whether Democrats who trust Hogan on health care and the economy vote Republican downballot and cut into Democratic control of the state legislature and county offices. Hogan's campaign, and the Republican Governors Association's supplementary campaign, have pounded Jealous as a liberal who'd wreck the state. It's not clear if that branding is sticking to other Democrats. 

New Jersey 11 (Monmouth, 356 Likely Voters)
Mikie Sherrill (D) - 48%
Jay Webber (R) - 44%

Republicans have refused to give up on this race, even as Sherrill has raised $6 million and Webber, a former state GOP chairman, has struggled to raise $1 million. But there's been no marginal movement since the last poll this summer; undecided voters have been breaking evenly, helping the Democrat retain her lead. By a 13-point margin, voters say Trump's endorsement of Webber makes them less likely to support him.


For the next week, the hosts of the Chapo Trap House podcast will be touring a part of the country that confounded Democrats in 2016 — the Midwest. From Ohio to Michigan to Wisconsin, five young left-wing authors will take over rock venues and talk, among other things, about how badly the political system is failing everyone.

“Mass action is the only antidote to this, and that's terrifying, because American society over the last 100 years has been structured to defeat mass activity of all kinds,” Matt Christman, one of the podcast's five regular co-hosts, said in an interview before the Chapo show in Washington last month. “Forget about things like creating the suburbs; look at mass media. Protests just aren't doing what they used to do.”

Chapo, a left-wing show funded by more than $100,000 in monthly listener donations, has become a cult hit with at least part of a demographic that Democrats struggle to understand: young people who can’t stand the Trump administration but can’t get excited about the president's opposition. In a June poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, just 28 percent of adults under 30 said they were “absolutely certain” they’ll vote in the midterms. Polls that show greater voter engagement among young people still find a large number of them favoring third parties.

What the young leftists hear on Chapo Trap House’s podcast and in “The Chapo Guide to Revolution,” which became a New York Times bestseller, is a critique of both liberals and conservatives. They don’t see a real resistance to President Trump on the Democrats’ behalf. They see a party in league with the financial industry that lacks bold ideas. What interests Chapo is the defeat of conservatism and nationalism, and the end of capitalism. The wrong kind of “resistance,” they fear, would undermine those goals.

“When I saw things like the Women’s March, I was elated,” said Virgil Texas, the co-host who focuses the most on electoral politics. (During their 2016 election night show, it was his job to analyze the vote numbers that showed Trump lurching ahead.) “When you get past all the Twitter [b.s.] of the last two years, I think your average person who would have been left-leaning, Democratic and suburban, has become more radical.”

Christman agreed. “The fact that they want to do something, after maybe a lifetime of being politically inert, is a good sign,” he said. “It matters where the organizational heft is, and that’s up to the people on the left. You have the potential foot soldiers now; the question is whether they get diverted into something like the Jon Stewart ‘Rally for Sanity,’ which didn’t do anything.”

The “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a rally held in Washington shortly before the 2010 midterm elections, has largely been forgotten by pop culture. It remains notorious on the far left.

Designed as a parody of Glenn Beck’s fire-breathing tea party rallies, the event gathered Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and a host of celebrities on the Mall, around the cause of preventing fringe activists from dominating politics. Days later, Republicans swept the midterm elections, locking in control of most states and the House and effectively blocking the Obama agenda.

With Trump in the White House, what worried left-wing writers, activists and podcasters was that the “resistance” would end the same way, with a return to normalcy that sparked yet another right-wing backlash.

“Anything that does not contain, in its DNA, a fundamental critique of capitalism, is ultimately going to be futile,” Texas said.


Kirsten Gillibrand. She campaigned with Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan over the weekend, helping with the final push before the voter registration period ends.

Bernie Sanders. He delivered his second major foreign-policy speech Tuesday, with a call to fight global right-wing populism and to "rally the entire planet to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.” Starting Oct. 19, he'll make campaign stops in nine states, including three stops in Iowa.

Elizabeth Warren. She was in Atlanta on Tuesday, campaigning alongside Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Massachusetts congressional nominee Ayanna Pressley, who's set to become the first black female member of Congress from New England.


"#MeToo Is a ‘Movement Toward Victimization,’ G.O.P. Senate Candidate Says,” by Jonathan Martin

Republicans are beginning to think that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) has no path to reelection. But both she and Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) have fully engaged with reporters, with Cramer unapologetically portraying Brett M. Kavanaugh as a victim, and Heitkamp mounting an emotional defense of women who have experienced sexual assault.

“Can Mike Bloomberg make America boring again?” by Ben Smith

If people are talking about running for president, Mike Bloomberg's adviser Kevin Sheekey is talking to reporters about how his boss is uniquely situated to run and win.

“Wall Street is booming under Trump. But many of its donors are embracing Democrats,” by Shane Goldmacher

For the first time in years, the financial industry is hedging bets on control of Congress.


... 23 days until the only debate in West Virginia's Senate race
... 24 days until the final pre-midterm jobs report
... 28 days until the midterms