Aug. 11--Paul Ryan was announced Saturday as Republican Mitt Romney's vice-presidential running mate, and conservatives are rejoicing.
But so are Democrats.
Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, is the architect of the Ryan budget plan that makes big changes to Medicare and Medicaid and could allow for some privatization of Social Security.
And that's widely seen by Democrats and most analysts as a politically risky stance in Florida, a must-win state for Republicans, where retirees cast a suspicious eye on changes to the three major government-entitlement programs that pump about $96 billion yearly into the hands of the elderly, the infirm and the hospitals, doctors and other providers who give them direct care.
By picking Ryan, Romney shows he's ready to fight for conservative changes to the liberal-legacy programs.
"We won't duck the tough issues...we will lead!" Ryan plans to say in his official acceptance speech in Norfolk, Virg., according to a copy of hir prepared remarks. "We won't blame others...we will take responsibility! We won't replace our founding principles...we will reapply them!"
Democrats are ready, too, for a battle of ideas.
"Paul Ryan wants to privatize Social Security. Looking forward to welcoming Mitt and his pick to Florida," U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat, tweeted. "There's nothing brave about cutting the programs that America's seniors rely on for their health and financial security."
In addition to talking more about Medicare and Republican plans to scale it back, Democrats won't have to face their nemesis, Sen. Marco Rubio, on a statewide ticket for the second election in a row in Florida, a state that Rubio as a running-mate would have put more in play for Romney, polls showed.
At the heart of the controversy is Ryan's proposal to turn Medicare in the future into a "premium support" system that would help seniors pay for private health insurance. It would essentially put more caps on future Medicare expenditures.
Democrats prefer to use the "V" word to describe it: Voucher. And they point to independent studies showing that the voucher, a predetermined amount of money that escalates at a predetermined rate over time, won't keep pace with the inflation of medical costs.
Bottom line: Seniors would have to pay more out of pocket in the future than they're paying now. Services could be cut. Right now, about 3.4 million are on Medicare in Florida, which receives about $25.2 billion from the program.
Ryan and the plan's defenders point out that nothing's free. Someone's always paying something out of pocket for Medicare or any other government program. On its current path, Medicare isn't sustainable. And more and more seniors are buying supplemental insurance to cover Medicare expenses now, making the system appear more voucher-like over time. Ryan said he's trying to save, not end, Medicare.
Also, Ryan softened his plan, giving some future beneficiaries the choice of using the voucher or keeping a more traditional Medicare program. Ryan's plan would restructure Medicare for those younger than 55. His Social Security plan would allow those younger than 55 to invest a part of their Social Security taxes in "personal retirement accounts" managed by the government, not private firms.
President Obama has called this "privatization" of Social Security, which it isn't. But it does put Social Security on that path, and the line of attack helped sandbag President George W. Bush in 2005, when Ryan pushed him to adopt conservative reforms to Social Security, which provides about $49 billion in Florida and serves 3.7 million residents.
If nervous seniors can be convinced by Romney and Ryan that the plan doesn't hurt them, their potential opposition could melt away. And if future retirees can be convinced that Medicare needs to be changed, then Democrats won't have much of an attack.
These are big ifs. Now the sell job -- the campaign within the presidential campaign -- has to begin. Actually, it has already begun. Republicans are excited.
"The Ryan pick FIRES UP the Republican base... and freaks out the liberals," Richard Grennell, an avid Romney supporter, said on Twitter.
Conservative media outlets love that Ryan has proposed big budget cuts and wants to reform the liberal legacies of Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.
At least in the short term, Ryan's selection will transform the presidential campaign into a policy-heavy discussion about the two biggest and most popular entitlement programs in Florida and the nation, Medicare and Social Security, which Ryan once wanted to partly privatize.
By selecting Ryan, Romney draws a sharper distinction with President Obama's ticket. A Romney-Ryan ticket doubles down on the idea that major entitlement programs can be overhauled and taxes can be cut -- especially for the wealthy, whom they describe as "job creators." Obama, by contrast, has called the Republican plans irresponsible because they could either lead to big budget deficits or could "end Medicare as we know it."
Romney hasn't provided enough details to show how his proposal would balance the budget and deeply cut taxes. But his pick of Ryan signals a new policy-oriented shift that blunts criticisms that he won't provide realistic in-the-weeds details. Ryan, the U.S. House budget writer, is immersed in specifics.
The tax-and-budget issues are part of a wonky policy debate that has no easy answers, relies on projections and guesses and seems laden with political calculations no matter how objective the issue might appear.
There's also a chance that talking about Medicare cuts might no longer be a third rail in Florida politics.
Rubio supports the Ryan plan and had said about as much in his successful 2010 campaign for the U.S. Senate in Florida, a sign that talking future Medicare cuts and changes might not be as risky as it once was. But that was a tea-party, Republican-heavy year. This election, like most presidential contests in Florida, will bring out a disproportionately higher number of Democrats than in 2010.
Also, Rubio wasn't the face of the Ryan plan.
Rubio appeals to Hispanic voters, especially Cuban-Americans, who comprise a little more than a third of the Florida Hispanic electorate. Polls showed he helped Romney earn higher support among Hispanics than any other potential vice-presidential pick.
Overall, Rubio gave Romney about a 2 percentage-point boost in Florida, according to The Miami Herald's most recent poll. No other candidate does that.
Rubio is popular in Florida. Ryan is unknown.
And Ryan's plan probably isn't popular in Florida, the nation's biggest swing state with the biggest population of retirees and seniors. About 17 percent of the state's population is older than 65; seniors make up a disproportionately larger segment of the electorate.
Cutting Medicare isn't popular. Just ask nearly every Republican who bashed President Obama's healthcare plan for cutting $500 billion from Medicare over a decade.
Now Democrats are ready to repay the favor. They point out that independent analysts have concluded that future beneficiaries would end up paying more under Ryan's plan than under the program as currently structured. A U.S. Senate study overseen by Democrats reported last year that out-of-pocket expenses would more than double in all states in 2022 under a Ryan-like proposal. But Florida's increase would be the highest, $7,383.
While no Florida-specific polls on the Ryan plan are available, a poll last summer by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. said that more than 50 percent of voters opposed Ryan's proposal. Opposition was highest among senior citizens, even though the plan would affect only those 55 and younger at the time the plan were to be passed.
A recent poll conducted for AARP of 500 Florida retirees and Baby Boomers showed that Romney and President Obama were virtually tied. Romney had the biggest edge with retirees -- who wouldn't be affected as much by the Ryan plan. But Baby Boomers were essentially deadlocked 45-46 percent over Romney and Obama.
And Baby Boomers were far more likely than retirees to worry about their retirement and healthcare. Most believed they would rely more on Social Security and Medicare than they previously thought.
Most Republicans get queasy talking about Medicare changes in a general election.
Before dropping out as a U.S. Senate candidate last year, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos balked when asked about the Ryan plan. His campaign pointed out that 55 percent of Florida GOP primary voters were older than 60. And the plan wasn't popular with them.
The likely Republican nominee to challenge Florida U.S Senator Bill Nelson in November, Connie Mack, had called the Ryan plan "a joke," but his campaign later said he was referring to the process of votes in Washington.
Mack, like Romney, will have a lot more talking and explaining to do in the coming months.
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