Tuesday, August 14, 2012

EDITORIAL >> Romney’s wiggle room

The conservative wing of the Republican Party, suspicious of a moderate running on top of the ticket, pressed Mitt Romney into picking Paul Ryan, a genuine conservative.

It remains to be seen if Romney will let Ryan set the tone for his administration, the way Vice President Dick Cheney set policy for the Bush administration, or if Romney will go back to his moderate roots if he’s elected.

Romney had hoped that choosing Ryan as his running mate would appease his party’s right wing, which considers him a closet liberal who supported universal health care, gun control, Planned Parenthood and other progressive causes when he was governor of Massachusetts.

“My plan for Medicare is very similar to his plan for Medicare,” Romney said Monday, referring to his running mate’s proposals. But Romney didn’t say how they differed on the details, but some of his advisers sought to distance Romney from Ryan’s ideas.

Ryan’s nomination, the theory goes, is supposed to keep Romney from even thinking about straying back to his moderate ways. But after last weekend’s euphoria — the Ryan pick is popular among Republicans, not as much with independents — it’s beginning to look like Ryan’s plan to reduce funding for Medicare and Medicaid is making Romney more than a little nervous.

The plan is not popular with focus groups because voters realize Medicare benefits would be severely reduced, which is inevitable: If you’re going to cut billions in spending, you must reduce benefits.

Although sketchy, the Ryan proposal calls for privatizing Medicare with lump-sum payments from the Treasury to insurance companies. Medicaid would shrink to a more modest block-grant program for the states.

Neither program would keep up with inflation or higher medical costs. Beneficiaries should not expect hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical procedures, which are commonly approved under Medicare and Medicaid. Future beneficiaries would have to rely on their own resources to cover medical expenses.

Romney and Ryan insist that future reforms would not affect people over 55. They would get the same Medicare benefits they were promised throughout their working lives. But what about those under 55 who’ve been paying into Medicare for decades? Why should they get fewer benefits when they retire?

Clearly the Romney-Ryan ticket is nervous.Romney, who has a well-deserved reputation as a flip-flopper, is using surrogates to suggest that maybe Medicare won’t change that much after all. Future retirees could stay in the popular program, or they could opt out and buy private insurance with federal subsidies.

Ryan himself has flip-flopped on other budgetary issues. A couple of years ago, Republicans pushed for cuts not only in social programs but also in military spending. Republicans, including our own Rep. Tim Griffin, said $500 billion in defense cuts would automatically kick in if Congress did not agree on a budget.

Griffin has stopped talking about defense cuts, while Romney and Ryan insist the defense budget is untouchable.

Romney is not opposed to deficit spending if it suits his purposes. He voted for the Bush administration’s unfunded prescription plan for seniors, the largest social program approved in Congress since Medicare.

Medicare’s Part D program, the drug subsidy, will add trillions of dollars to the deficit, although the plan is much loved by seniors, especially since the Democrats eliminated the so-called donut hole.

Rep. Ryan is popular in many circles, including the media, but Congress has an approval rating of 10 percent, much lower than the president’s. Despite all the noise, neither party is serious about controlling spending.

The fight is over reducing the rate of growth. Farmers want their subsidies. Road contractors want to build highways. Defense contractors want to build ships and jet fighters. Seniors want life-saving surgery and an array of medicines to keep them going.

How do we pay for these programs, or should we eliminate them? It’s reasonable to assume that once he’s in office, Romney wouldn’t touch those programs.

Before the campaign is over, Ryan, like Ronald Reagan, might also come around and keep them going.