Medicare: Republicans say they're ready to rumble. Is that wise?

The coming election may be about jobs, jobs, jobs, but Republicans at the National Convention are vowing to take the battle to the Democrats on Medicare, too. They may have had little choice.

By , Staff writer

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    Delegates watch a video presentation during an abbreviated session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Monday, Aug. 27.
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House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio was just as adamant Monday at the Republican National Convention as he has been for months prior: the coming election will be about jobs and jobs alone.

But there’s another issue on which congressional Republicans say they’re spoiling for a fight – Medicare.

In fact, while conventions are always chock full of optimistic bluster, one top Republican masterminding the party’s attempt to win House seats made a boast Monday that foretells a head-on collision over the decidedly non-jobs issue.

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“I predict, in two weeks, the Democrats stop talking about Medicare because they will have officially lost this issue,” said Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee at a briefing with reporters Monday. “You just watch – they’re going to start going to another issue. Because for all their talk, they know how bad Obamacare is for them.”

For Republicans, the calculus appears to be that Democrats, who traditionally outpoll them on Medicare policy, were going to jam the issue down their throats whether they liked it or not. So they better get ahead of the curve – and fast.

“The [Medicare] debate, if we didn’t want to have it, was going to be conducted by late-night phone calls from Democratic phone banks to seniors and ugly mail pieces scaring the crap out of them,” Karl Rove, an influential GOP strategist and powerbroker who helps direct the largest Republican super PAC, said at a breakfast sponsored by POLITICO. “And I’d rather have the discussion now – we know as a country that these things are going broke.”

Speaker Boehner was a bit less strident – although no less aggressive-minded – in his own remarks at a lunch sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. Boehner noted his heavy travel schedule stumping in August for House candidates, with a special focus on so-called “orphan” races in New York, California, and Illinois. More than a dozen races in those states are seen as key opportunities for Democrats hoping to retake the House, because the states lean Democratic and will see no investment from the Republican presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.

“Republicans are on offense on all the big issues, whether it’s jobs, spending, even Medicare,” Boehner said. “That means we’re on offense in all the big races as well.”

Two weeks, in theory, to send the Democrats packing on Medicare would put the cease-fire just a week after the conclusion of the Democrats’ own convention, being held next week in Charlotte, N.C.

Let’s just say Democrats aren’t exactly in retreat.

“I sincerely hope that they’ve convinced all their candidates to run on the Medicare-ending budget,” says Jesse Ferguson, communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It polls terribly, it’s cost them special elections – and even Republicans admit it” is problematic.

Mr. Ferguson was referring to the House budget sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin – Mr. Romney’s choice as running mate – and passed in both 2011 and 2012 in the Republican-held chamber. That budget would end the current Medicare program (which pays a percentage of medical services) for those under the age of 55 and replace it with a premium-support system (derided by Democrats as a Medicare “voucher”) that would give seniors money each month to pay their medical expenses.

Most (but not all) of the polling shows Democrats maintaining the historic edge they’ve held on the Medicare issue.

An August NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 54 percent of registered voters thought Medicare needed only minor modifications or was fine as currently constituted. In the poll, 30 percent of respondents thought a proposal similar to Mr. Ryan’s was a bad idea, while 15 percent thought it a good one – but a majority of voters (51 percent) had no opinion.

A Pew Research survey from last week, however, shows that among those who have heard “a lot” or “a little” about a general description matching Ryan’s proposal, 49 percent oppose it versus 35 percent who support it.

A Washington Post poll released Monday was even more striking: just under two-thirds of registered voters opposed the Ryan plan, with 40 percent strongly opposed.

Still, data released Monday by a conservative group, Resurgent Republic, showed a much tighter contest on Medicare.

When offered representations of the Democratic and Republican messages on Medicare, 40 percent preferred the conservative argument and 41 percent preferred the liberal message. Independents narrowly favored the GOP formulation 39 percent to 37 percent.

Republicans are hoping their polling is right.
 
 “I am very cognizant that every election, Democrats are going to say Republicans are going to cut Medicare, because they’ve said it every election for the last 20 years,” said Haley Barbour, a former governor of Mississippi and top Republican strategist, at the release of the Resurgent Republic polling data.
 
 “The American people have seen through [Democratic Medicare attacks] and that’s why I thought Romney’s choice of Ryan for a lot of very good, bold reasons was not as risky as some people made it out to be,” Mr. Barbour said.

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