Until now the issue of reforming Medicare had remained surprisingly quiet during the Florida primary. But it erupted after Mitt Romney told a group of seniors on Monday night that “we will never go after Medicare or Social Security. We will protect those programs.”
Democrats did a double-take. Barely a month ago, Romney became a strong backer of the Paul Ryan budget which would essentially end Medicare by turning it into a voucher program. Now, Democrats are going after Romney for promising to save the program he recently signed on for dismembering. On the day of the election, it might be too late to push this narrative on primary voters, but Romney’s position on Medicare will be front-and-center in the general election.
Now that he’s in Florida, Mitt Romney is trying to “change his tune,” DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said on a conference call Tuesday. “We had always assumed he’d be here saying anything to voters in the Sunshine State to get elected.”
Medicare and the Paul Ryan plan were bound to play a significant role in the election, particularly since December when Mitt Romney tried to stave off Newt Gingrich’s attacks from the right by swearing fealty to Ryan’s plan. It was just a matter of time before Romney walked back those comments to appeal to more moderate voters and seniors.
Though Democrats’ message is that Romney has been inconsistent on the issue, this isn’t a regular Romney flip flop. Instead, Romney was careful in his comments to leave the door open for the Ryan plan, or a similar reform effort, by hinting that in order to “protect” Medicare it might be necessary to reform it. “So if I’m president, I will protect Medicare and Social Security for those that are currently retired or near retirement,” Romney assured the seniors he spoke to, adding, “and I’ll make sure we keep those programs solvent for the next generations coming along.”
The idea that reform is the only way to save Medicare is an argument Paul Ryan himself has used recently. It allows Romney to shift away from Democrats’ narrative that he is changing his position by explaining that reforming Medicare and protecting it are the same thing.
Democrats, meanwhile, want to get the point across that Romney’s reforms do not save Medicare, they destroy it. Tuesday, they highlighted policies Romney has supported in order to argue that his promise to protect the two entitlement programs is “patently dishonest.” In addition to his support for Paul Ryan, his own plan creates a voucher Medicare system, which in their phrase leaves traditional Medicare to “wither on the vine.” And beyond Medicare, Romney’s support for a Cut, Cap, and Balance approach to the budget would result in drastic cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Today was just a preview of the dynamics that will continue to characterize the debate over entitlements going forward. Democrats won’t let up on the issue, and neither will Republicans. Paul Ryan recently vowed to bring up the issue of Medicare in this year’s budget. “We’re not going backward,” Ryan said on Fox News Sunday, “we’re going forward. We’re not backing off of any of our ideas, any of our solutions.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.