No dates. No dollar signs. No numbers.
Mitt Romney’s two-page plan to overhaul Medicare is an exercise in vagueness.
And that could prove to be a most-effective campaign weapon this election season. Or it could be his undoing.
Specifics might be a thing to be avoided in a campaign. Elections often hinge more on emotions than on facts. They’re often more about how people figure a politician will improve their lives and not so much about the figures proposed by politicians.
And the addition of Paul Ryan to Romney’s presidential ticket hasn’t changed that at all.
A bars-and-charts-wielding Wisconsin congressman, Ryan has a reputation as a specifics guy. But now he’s the No. 2 on a ticket where the attention to detail doesn’t extend to details.
“The nature of running a presidential campaign is that you’re communicating direction to the American people,” an anonymous Romney adviser told the Politico website. “Campaigns that are about specifics, particularly in today’s environment, get tripped up.”
Case in point: President Barack Obama.
Obama promised to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. The deficit grew instead. Obama said his stimulus plan would keep unemployment below 8 percent. That hasn’t happened yet. He said he’d pass the pro-immigrant DREAM Act in his first term. That didn’t happen, either.
And, in February 2008, Obama campaign surrogate Kathleen Sebelius specifically pointed to Romney’s healthcare reform when he was governor of Massachusetts and said Obama believed “the individual mandate doesn’t work.”
By 2010, the mandate requiring people buy health insurance was the linchpin of Obamacare when it passed. And, ironically, Romney attacks the very plan that was based on his plan.
What happened? Reality.
Obama had to deal with a worse-than-expected economy and Congress. By the time a campaign proposal goes through the meat-grinder of Congress, it usually looks nothing like the filet mignon promised on the campaign trail.
Still, he promised specifics. And now he’s paying a price.
“We will not blame other people. We will take responsibility,” Ryan said Saturday during a trip to The Villages retirement community. “We are not going to duck the tough issues. We’re not going to kick the can down the road. We will lead.”
So far, though, Ryan and Romney have done just that.
When confronted last week with the fact that he advocated for stimulus spending that he trashed as a type of “sugar-high” socialism, Ryan denied it. Then he admitted he did advocate bringing bacon home after all.
Both Romney and Ryan have proposed budget plans that would steeply cut taxes and spending. But Romney wants to reverse Obamacare’s $700 billion in reductions to future Medicare spending and he wants more military spending. So he has advocated removing tax incentives to balance the budget.
But neither he nor Ryan will say which ones.
“That is something that we think we should do in the light of day, through Congress,” Ryan told Fox News’ Brit Hume.
Translation: We’ll tell you after we get elected in November.
The Obama campaign hopes to use the repeated specifics-avoidance by Romney — coupled with his refusal to turn over multiple years of his tax returns — to cast doubt on his trustworthiness.
The Romney campaign hopes to keep the focus squarely on the rotten condition of the economy. Republicans say that talking too many details of Romney’s plans muddles the message of focusing on Obama’s failures.
Ryan has felt the sting of specifics as well.
In 2011, he presented a budget plan that showed future retirees in Medicare would have to pay about $6,400 more out of pocket on average, according to figures derived from the Congressional Budget Office.
The out-of-pocket costs could increase because new recipients, starting next decade, would get a capped “premium-support” subsidy through Medicare to purchase health insurance.
The next year, Ryan proposed a follow-up that required the CBO to assume a passel of plan-friendly calculations specified by Ryan and his staff on the House Budget Committee.
“CBO has not analyzed the policies that might be implemented to produce such a path for Medicare spending,” analysts wrote in March, “including a premium-support approach to Medicare of the sort that Chairman Ryan and other Members of Congress have recently discussed.”
Don’t expect any analyses soon.
Under Romney and Ryan’s plan on their campaign’s website, there are no numbers concerning how much the premium support would be or how fast it would grow. Obama wants to extend traditional Medicare, and bashes the premium support as an inadequate “voucher” that eventually “ends Medicare as we know it.”
According to the latest Ryan plan, only new enrollees, those who start turning 65 in 2023, would likely get the voucher-like subsidy. The Romney plan, which says the Ryan plan “mirrors” it, provides no ages or years.
“Mitt continues to work on refining the details of his plan,” the website says, “and he is exploring different options for ensuring that future seniors receive the premium support they need while also ensuring that competitive pressures encourage providers to improve quality and control cost.”
There’s a reason for the cliché “the devil is in the details.”
Indeed, sometimes the specifics can seem hellishly contradictory.
Consider the $700 billion of Medicare reductions in Obamacare. They aren’t cuts. And, at the same time, they are.
First off, Obamacare’s cuts are proposed reductions of anticipated increases. Medicare grew at a faster rate this year than compared to the average annual percentage increases of the previous five years.
And the trustees overseeing Medicare’s finances report that they doubt the reductions (aimed at hospitals, private insurers, pharmaceutical companies and fraudsters — not beneficiaries) can really be achieved. And if the reductions are achieved, that could diminish services, making it a future cut.
Medicare’s trustees say Obamacare helped extend the life of the program. But Obamacare also plowed the “savings” into another government program, namely Medicaid. So how can it save money and spend money?
Welcome to government budgeting.
Meanwhile, Romney has pledged to repeal Obamacare and reverse its Medicare cuts. But Obamacare is considered a budget-and-Medicare saver by independent analysts. So reversing it all could increase the deficit and make Medicare less solvent.
How will Romney deal with this conundrum? Neither he, his staff nor Ryan will say. But they say they’re ready to slug it out with Obama over Medicare.
“We want this debate. We need this debate,” Ryan said. “We will win this debate.”
But can they do it without a lot of details?