Desperate to remove the indelible stigma of his Massachusetts health care reform legislation, Mitt Romney may well have overreached by endorsing the Congressional Republican scheme to replace Medicare with a costly, medically inadequate voucher system. No doubt Romney meant to distance himself not only from his own record but also from Newt Gingrich, the GOP front-runner who denounced the same scheme — authored by House Budget chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) — as “right-wing social engineering” last spring.
Whether Republican voters will buy this latest renovation of Romney remains to be seen. What we already know, however, is that most voters, including Republicans and Tea Party zealots, prefer Medicare as it is and disdain politicians who want to dismantle it. Although comfortable conservative pundits love the Ryan budget and dream of killing Medicare, the program’s popularity is well known among Republicans who must actually face voters in the coming year. Many of them have tried to avoid the question altogether or have defended traditional Medicare from the House Republican assault.
Gingrich is sure to make the most of the Medicare issue in the primaries, even though he tried to walk back his denunciation of the Ryan plan when many Republicans and conservatives reacted with fury. And in places like Florida, which was supposed to serve as Romney’s political firewall against a surge by any other candidate, he could succeed.
For the moment Romney is playing to the punditocracy in Washington, where the right obsesses over repealing all public health care expenditures and some more centrist editorialists and columnists agree. But as Ronald Brownstein hinted in National Journal on Friday, we may hear a different message from Romney if he vanquishes Gingrich and wins the nomination. For as Brownstein observes, the real difference between Romney and Gingrich on Medicare is a matter of emphasis and rhetoric rather than substance. Both candidates want to replace the current system with a “defined contribution” plan, and both say that they would keep the traditional version as an “option” for those who prefer it. This is a familiar tactic among politicians seeking to repeal popular social programs; in the fine print, which they never mention, this dual option always becomes impossible because the necessary funding gradually disappears.
Romney is fundamentally a salesman who, as he tries to sell himself to voters, often speaks out of both sides of his mouth. So does Gingrich. Despite their many superficial differences in personality and temperament, they are essentially the same in character and ideology. To paraphrase the appropriate Latin warning, caveat lector — or let the voter beware.