By Eugene Robinson
TAMPA, Fla. — Who knew? In the hall-of-mirrors parallel universe where the Republican National Convention is taking place, the GOP stands tall and proud as the party of Medicare.
I’m still a little confused about the historical timeline in this alternate reality. Was it President Goldwater who signed into law the nation’s health care guarantee for seniors? Was it President Dole who made sure the program remained solvent? Did John McCain win in 2008?
It must be that in RNC World, the past simply doesn’t exist. There is no other explanation for all the Great Society rhetoric coming from Republicans who once claimed to favor small government, limited entitlements and a balanced budget.
At a Bloomberg breakfast Monday morning, Mitt Romney’s campaign brain trust claimed to welcome a fight with President Obama over the future of Medicare. I say “claimed” because the Romney team surely recognizes that putting Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., on the ticket means not being able to run away from Ryan’s plan — endorsed by House Republicans — to transform Medicare into a voucher program.
This radical change would, as Democrats claim, “end Medicare as we know it.” Instead of the current guarantee that the program pays for medical costs, Ryan’s plan would give seniors a set amount of money each year to buy private health insurance. If that sum isn’t enough to pay for the necessary coverage — or to pay for traditional Medicare — seniors would have to make up the difference.
“I think we’re winning the Medicare battle because the facts are on our side,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s communications chief. “It’s not usual that Republicans have the upper hand in this argument.”
To say the least.
The GOP’s argument centers on $716 billion that Obama, through the Affordable Care Act, has shifted away from Medicare providers, such as doctors and hospitals, over the next decade. Most of these cost savings were negotiated with the providers, and there would be no, repeat no, reduction in benefits to seniors.
Nevertheless, as soon as Ryan’s selection was announced, Republicans went on the attack with ads charging Obama with “gutting” Medicare and promising that not a penny would be cut under a Romney administration.
Remember, this is a parallel universe. We’re supposed to forget that Obamacare preserves Medicare as a guarantee — a promise that all Americans will have health care in their golden years — while the Romney-Ryan plan would subject seniors to the vagaries of the private insurance market and potentially cost them an extra $6,400 a year.
Facts and history also went unacknowledged at Newt University, a series of policy lectures and workshops that Newt Gingrich is staging this week for conventioneers. The very first class at Newt U happened to be about Medicare.
“When you talk about who’s tearing up Medicare, it’s Barack Obama,” thundered the one-time college professor. Meanwhile, to Gingrich’s right, a video screen showed the results of an audience poll asking how much Obama had “cut” Medicare. To participate, you had to send your answer by text; tallies were updated, in real time, on the screen. How this represented an improvement on the “show of hands” method was unclear.
Gingrich gave way to guest lecturer Betsy McCaughey, the former New York lieutenant governor for whom opposition to the Affordable Care Act has become a crusade and a career. She made Gingrich sound measured and moderate, which ain’t easy.
Obama, she charged, has already “destroyed Medicare as we know it.” Extracting the $716 billion in cost savings from Medicare providers, while simultaneously providing coverage for 31 million uninsured Americans, was the equivalent of “robbing Grandma to spread the wealth.”
McCaughey was just warming up. It’s not just Grandma’s money that’s at stake, she charged, but also her life. The Affordable Care Act “will mean fewer elderly patients survive their hospital stay and leave alive.”
Run for your life, Granny.
Let’s return to the real world. As McCaughey said in a moment of lucidity, Medicare has fundamentally transformed the experience of aging in this country by providing a guarantee of health care.
What she didn’t acknowledge is that it was Democrats who conceived of Medicare, passed it into law and kept it viable all these years. It was Republicans who denounced the program as “socialized medicine” — and who now want to replace Medicare’s guarantee with a system of vouchers.
Republicans may tell themselves that the GOP is the party of Medicare. But I doubt seniors will be convinced.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.