In figure skating, gymnastics, skateboarding and other sports, performing a 720-degree, double-rotation is not for the faint of heart. When it comes to their plan to end the Medicare system of guaranteed insurance for 46 million Americans, Republicans attempting the rare 720 are learning that the hard way. After all, in just two short years, members of the party that for 50 years has tried to kill Medicare have been for, then against, once again for and now against Paul Ryan's privatization scheme. Sadly for the GOP, the judges of this event - the American people - don't like what they see.
Which is why just weeks after all but four House Republicans voted for the Ryan 2012 budget proposal, the party's leading lights are stumbling and bumbling as they flee from it in terror.
Watching her lead vanish in New York's solidly Republican 26th Congressional District, Jane Corwin reversed course on her support for the Ryan voucher plan. White House hopeful Michele Bachmann "put an asterisk" next to her vote for the bill, announcing, "I'm concerned about shifting the cost burden to seniors." Newt Gingrich, who in the 1990's expressed his desire to see Medicare "wither on the vine," tied himself in knots after describing Ryan's rationing gambit as "right-wing social engineering." Meanwhile in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who previously accused Democrats of "sticking it to seniors with cuts to Medicare," refused to endorse Ryan's plan. Writing today in Politico, incumbent Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown pivoted from his past support for Medicare to explain "why I don't support Ryan Medicare plan."
As it turns out, Brown's cold feet are just the latest for once over-confident Republicans grown suddenly squeamish. After all, for two years the GOP's backing of the Ryan Roadmap has been directly proportional to the distance to the next Election Day.
In April 2009, twenty four months before 235 House Republicans voted for Ryan's plan to ration Medicare, the smaller GOP minority said yea on essentially the same plan. As Steve Benen detailed in the Washington Monthly in the fall of 2009:
In April, 137 Republicans voted in support of a GOP alternative budget. It didn't generate a lot of attention, but the plan, drafted by the House Budget Committee's Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called for "replacing the traditional Medicare program with subsidies to help retirees enroll in private health care plans."But as the 2010 midterm campaign approached, Republicans swept that vote and Ryan's plan under the rug. As you'll recall, the centerpiece of the Republicans' 2010 effort was an ad campaign to terrify the elderly about minor changes to Medicare Advantage affecting at most 15% of the overall program's 46 million beneficiaries. RNC chairman Michael Steele even promoted a "Seniors' Bill of Rights" which declared:
The AP noted at the time that Republican leaders were "clearly nervous that votes in favor of the GOP alternative have exposed their members to political danger."
"Let's agree in both parties that Congress should only consider health reform proposals that protect senior citizens. For starters, no cuts to Medicare to pay for another program. Zero."
That was tough to square with the Paul Ryan's plan to ration Medicare by ending guaranteed health insurance for the elderly and replacing it with under-funded vouchers to buy coverage in the much more expensive private market. Which is why the party last fall ran as far away as possible from Ryan's Roadmap for America before the actual voting took place.
Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, the minority leader, has praised Mr. Ryan but said the Roadmap would not be a part of the Republican agenda this fall.
"There are parts of it that are well done," Mr. Boehner told reporters last month. "Other parts I have some doubts about, in terms of how good the policy is."
In fact, only 13 House Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors, and Republican leaders, hoping for gains in the fall and, ultimately, in 2012, seem concerned at the possibility that the Roadmap may eventually become something candidates will be forced to take a position on. After all, what candidate wants to talk about major changes to Medicare and Social Security?
Which was exactly right. With its draconian spending cuts, Medicare rationing, tax cuts for the rich and Social Security privatization, a GOP platform based on Ryan's Roadmap would have been about as popular as the Ebola virus. As the Washington Post put it last summer:
Many Republican colleagues, who, even as they praise Ryan for his doggedness, privately consider the Roadmap a path to electoral disaster...
The discomfort some Republicans feel for Ryan's proposals goes beyond November. If Republicans were to take control of Congress next year, Ryan will rise to chairman of the Budget Committee. He could use the position to hold colleagues accountable for runaway budget deficits and make it more difficult for fellow Republicans -- and Democrats -- to stuff bills with expensive projects that add to the problem.
Even Ryan's closest political allies feared the blowback from his ideas. Last year, GOP representatives Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) joined in Ryan in publishing Young Guns. But even Ryan's co-authors were afraid to back his draconian plans. As ThinkProgress reported last August, Cantor repeatedly refused to endorse Ryan's Roadmap. As late as January, he could only muster, "I'm hopeful that we can get elements of what Paul is aiming for incorporated." As for his other co-author, in September McCarthy lied about what was in Ryan's plan - and their book, pretending, "No one has a proposal up to cut Social Security. It's about protecting it." (Social Security privatization is not part of the Republicans' current budget plans - at least not yet.)
For his part, Ryan in August acknowledged the GOP's past allergic reaction to his Roadmap. "While I am proud to have 13 House Republicans co-sponsor the legislation, and have been overwhelmed by the support outside the Beltway," he claimed, "my plan is not the Republican Party's platform and was never intended to be."
Of course, Paul Ryan's Roadmap for America was always intended to be the Republican Party's platform. Just not until after Election Day.Now House Speaker, John Boehner reflected the GOP's public change of heart towards the Ryan scheme. As the vote on Ryan's 2012 House budget proposal approached last month, the once-timid Boehner jumped in with both feet:
"I fully support Paul Ryan's budget, including his efforts on Medicare."
But as the public backlash to the GOP rationing plan for Medicare grew, Speaker Boehner within days once grew weak at the knees. Less than two weeks after declaring his full support, Boehner told ABC News:
"I'm for it. It's our idea. Right? It's Paul's idea. Other people have other ideas. I'm not wedded to one single idea, but I think it's -- we have a plan."
For his part, Senator Scott Brown announced Monday he wanted a divorce from that plan:
"I fear that as health inflation rises, the cost of private plans will outgrow the government premium support-- and the elderly will be forced to pay ever higher deductibles and co-pays."
Of course, back in February 2010 - that is, when Republicans were against the Ryan plan before they were for it and now against it again, Ezra Klein had a word for the inevitable result Brown described today:
"It's hard, given the constraints of our current debate, to call something 'rationing' without being accused of slurring it. But this is rationing, and that's not a slur. This is the government capping its payments and moderating their growth in such a way that many seniors will not get the care they need."
Americans, and not just the elderly who gave the Republicans their overwhelming victory in November, agree. Which is why, for the fourth time in two years, Republicans are changing positions on Ryan's Medicare voucher scheme.
And that's a tough move to pull off. Especially now that everyone is watching.