In his attempt to stave off Newt Gingrich’s surge, Mitt Romney is rapidly transforming himself today into the chief defender of Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan.
Democrats are somewhat taken aback — this is the Romney they were hoping for all along. Remember that it was just a matter of weeks ago that Romney was tacking to the center of the GOP field when it came to entitlements, championing Social Security against pre-implosion Rick Perry’s attacks.
That Romney was a tougher one for Democrats to face in the general election: by beating Perry partially with his defense of a key entitlement, he threatened to emerge from the primary as the guy who stood up to the Tea Party extremism within his party while striving to become the moderate president he thinks Americans want. That’s a much harder sell now.
When the Ryan Plan — which, as a reminder, eliminates Medicare as we know it and replaces it with a voucher system — passed the House earlier this year, Romney did what you’d expect of a candidate trying to focus on the general election. He expressed tacit support for the ideas behind the Ryan Plan (Romney said he and Ryan are on “the same page”) but he made it clear he was going to offer his own plan that was different than Ryan’s. At first, Romney wouldn’t even say if he’d sign the Ryan Budget into law if he was president (though he eventually did, while adding, “His plan is not the plan I’ll put forward; I have my own plan.”)
Romney was so weaselly on the Ryan Plan that Democrats attacked him over his vague language. Here’s the first ad run by Priorities USA, the Obama-backing Super PAC. It went up in May:
When Romney finally did put out his plan, it was as he promised: very much like Ryan’s, with a few key general election-friendly tweaks. Chief among the differences is that Romney’s plan keeps Medicare in place as one option in a voluntary voucher system, while Ryan’s plan scraps Medicare entirely in favor of private plans.
So Romney had his firewall against the kind of Democratic attacks on the Ryan Budget that led to some upsets on the special election campaign trail this year. While his plan was significantly more conservative than many observers expected, it still nodded to the general election by offering some crucial daylight between his campaign and Ryan’s politically dangerous proposal.
Today, Romney erased whatever distance was left between him and the Ryan Plan as he shifted his attention to Gingrich. Through surrogates and in campaign releases, Romney recast himself as a champion of Ryan against Gingrich’s disastrous attacks early in his campaign. Democrats reached by TPM Thursday were pleasantly surprised, and said it looked to them like Romney just blew a big hole in his general election narrative. Though they had clearly prepared for Romney to go more conservative in the face of Gingrich, there was a sense of shock among Democrats that he hugged Ryan so tightly.
“In embracing Paul Ryan’s radical plan, Mitt Romney is guaranteeing either the demise of his chances to be President, or the demise of Medicare,” Paul Begala, an adviser to PrioritiesUSA, told TPM.
For their part, Romney’s campaign is hoping to focus more on what the Ryan episode says about Gingrich’s volatility and inconsistency than the substance of their candidate’s actual Medicare proposals.
But Begala called the Ryan Plan “the most toxic, anti-senior, anti-middle-class proposal I have seen from a major political party in years,” and suggested Romney is making it harder to sell himself to a general electorate the closer he gets to it.
“The fact that Mitt Romney would call for essentially ending Medicare should disqualify him from the presidency in the eyes of millions of middle-class voters,” Begala said.