Out of 240 House Republicans, these four intrepid individuals cast the only votes on the House floor against the bold blueprint of Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, to dramatically shrink the responsibility of the federal government in providing for the general welfare and to convert Medicare into a voucher program.
Out of 47 Republicans in the Senate, just five — Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rand Paul of Kentucky — defied Republican orthodoxy and voted against the Ryan budget plan.
These congressional votes put Republicans squarely on the record in support of completely overhauling Medicare. This is a serious problem for Republicans, because Medicare, in its current form, is enormously popular with three sizable groups of Americans: A) those who are old themselves, B) those who personally care about someone who is old and C) those who think they, themselves, might one day be old.
It is true that most Americans probably do not have an encyclopedic understanding about the specific dollar costs of Medicare, but they know for certain how strongly they do care about Medicare.
By 2022, when Ryan’s Medicare plan would become law, the average 65-year-old, according to the authoritative Congressional Budget Office, would have to pay $6,400 to $7,000 more per year than she would pay under the traditional Medicare program.
Not surprisingly, information like the preceding has taken a major toll on pubic support for the Republican plan. When the CNN/Opinion Research poll asked in a national survey, “From everything you have heard or read about the Republicans’ plan to change Medicare so far, do you favor or oppose it?” just 35 percent of all respondents favored the Republican plan, while 58 percent expressed their opposition to it.
Disapproval was consistent across the board: Americans younger than age 50 (36 percent favor/57 percent oppose), those older than age 50 (33 percent favor/60 percent oppose) and political independents (34 percent favor/57 percent oppose). The lonely island of support for the Republican Medicare plan was, surprise, among Republican voters who backed the party position by 68 percent to 26 percent.
Similarly, when the ABC News/Washington Post poll this spring asked, “In order to reduce the national debt (the Republicans’ 2011 unifying mission), would you support or oppose cutting spending on Medicare, which is the government health insurance program for the elderly?” a mere 21 percent of those surveyed favored cutting Medicare spending, while a landslide 78 percent opposed any Medicare spending cuts.
In fact, any public criticism by a Republican of the Ryan plan puts the dissenter at risk of condemnation by party theologians as a heretic. Former House speaker and current presidential candidate, as well as one-time keeper of the conservative flame, Newt Gingrich, was all but officially excommunicated as a Republican for his gratuitously disparaging knocking of the Ryan plan.
Here is where the Republicans’ Medicare voucher policy becomes a painfully risky political dilemma for Republican candidates in 2012. By uncritically backing the Ryan plan — which is overwhelmingly supported by Republican primary voters — the Republican candidate improves his chances of winning a contested Republican primary. But the route to victory in a November general election against a competitive Democrat may well require that the Republican candidate divorce and distance himself from the Ryan-Medicare voucher plan, which, as we have seen, is emphatically unpopular with the large majority of voters who are not Republicans.
Already, Republicans’ all-out support for the Ryan Medicare plan has cost them the loss, in a special congressional election in upstate New York, of a previously safe Republican House seat.
It is agreed that the winning Democrat, Kathy Hochul, was the decidedly superior candidate. But still there was a good chance that without Republican Jane Corwin having stated that if she had been in the House she would have voted for the Ryan plan, Hochul — a committed opponent of the Ryan plan — would not have won. At least, that’s how many Republican and Democratic observers of that upset victory read the outcome. And in politics, as we know, perception is reality.
This is why the Republicans have themselves to blame heading into 2012 for their party’s Medicare crisis.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.