Paul Ryan's Medicare Fizzle

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 12 2012 9:25 AM

Paul Ryan's Medicare Fizzle

I wrote in my fatigue-powered debate wrap that Republicans were unsure how to attack Joe Biden's performance. Paul Ryan survived, sure, but what to say about Biden, who clearly brought his game? Go after his fact-challenged statement on what the Benghazi consulate had asked for before being attacked? Carp about Biden's laughter and interruptions? Because the meme-and-gif-and-cable-news-pundit sorts of coverage are so frivolous, it looks like the "What about your laughs" storyline won out. But go back to the moment that Biden's steamroller really prevented Ryan from talking. It came when Ryan talked about Medicare.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

REP. RYAN: Here’s the problem. They got caught with their hands in the cookie jar turning Medicare into a piggy bank for “Obamacare”. Their own actuary from the administration came to Congress and said one out of six hospitals and nursing homes are going to go out of business as a result of this.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: That’s not what they said.
REP. RYAN: Seven point four million seniors are projected to lose the current Medicare Advantage coverage they have. That’s a $3,200 benefit cut.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: That didn’t happen.
REP. RYAN: What we’re saying --
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: More people signed up.
REP. RYAN: These are from your own actuaries.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: More -- more -- more people signed up for Medicare Advantage after the change.
REP. RYAN: What -- what they’re --
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: No -- nobody is getting shut down.

In the first Romney-Obama debate, the Republican was able to give his Medicare answer with no pushback. For reasons that confounded liberals, the president just held back and then talked about IPAB. But Biden refused to let Ryan get a sentence out.

REP. RYAN: Mr. Vice President, I know --
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: No -- no -- (inaudible) --
REP. RYAN: Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under a lot of duress -- (laughter) -- to make up for lost ground -- (laughter) -- but I think people would be better served if we don’t keep interrupting each other.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Well, don’t take all the four minutes, then.

That was a pretty good response. At this point, voters are aware that Obama-Biden have slipped in tracking polls. But Biden wasn't chastened.

REP. RYAN: Now let me just -- let me say this. We are not -- we are saying, don’t change benefits for people 55 and above. They already organized their retirement around these promises.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: They already are --
REP. RYAN: But you want to -- (inaudible) -- these programs for those of us --
MS. RADDATZ: Let me ask you this: what is your specific plan for seniors who really can’t afford to make up the difference in the value of what you call a premium support plan and others call a voucher?
REP. RYAN: A hundred percent coverage for them.
MS. RADDATZ: And what --
REP. RYAN: That’s what we’re saying.
MS. RADDATZ: -- what cost --
REP. RYAN: So we’re saying income-adjust --
MS. RADDATZ: How do you make that up?
REP. RYAN: -- these premium support payments by taking down the subsidies for wealthy people.

Even if you're pretty conversant on this issue, Biden made it impossible to follow.

REP. RYAN: Look, this is a plan -- by the way, that $6,400 number, it was misleading then. It’s totally inaccurate now. This is a plan that’s bipartisan. It’s a plan I put together with a prominent Democrat senator from Oregon.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: There’s not one Democrat who endorsed his --
REP. RYAN: It’s a plan --
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: -- not one Democrat who signed his plan.
REP. RYAN: Our partner is a Democrat from Oregon.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: And he said he does no longer support (you for that ?).
REP. RYAN: We -- we put it -- we put it together with the former Clinton budget director.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Who disavows it. (Chuckles.)
REP. RYAN: This idea -- this idea came from the Clinton commission to save Medicare, chaired by Senator John Breaux. Here’s the point, Martha.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Which was rejected.

It really felt like Biden had grabbed the Hammer of Politifact. Ryan was unable to use any of the "bipartisan" talking points.

REP. RYAN: If we don’t -- if we don’t fix this problem pretty soon, then current seniors get cut! Here’s the problem. Ten thousand people are retiring every single day in America today, and they will for 20 years. That’s not a political thing. That’s a math thing.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Martha, if we just did one thing, if we just -- if they allow Medicare to bargain for the cost of drugs like Medicaid can, that would save $156 billion right off the bat.
REP. RYAN: And it would deny seniors choices.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: All -- all -- all --
REP. RYAN: It -- it has restricted (formula ?) --
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Seniors are not denied.
REP. RYAN: Absolutely.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Sorry, they are not denied. Look, folks, and all you seniors out there, have you been denied choices? Have you lost Medicare Advantage or, if you have signed up --
REP. RYAN: Because it’s working well right now.
VICE RESIDENT BIDEN: Because we changed the law!

From there, Biden and Raddatz went on to Social Security. This was significant. When he was unveiled as Mitt Romney's running mate, Ryan pre-empted worries about his Medicare plan with a terrific chest-pound. "We want this debate. We need this debate. And we will win this debate." In swing state TV ads, I think Republicans are doing a good job deflecting the Medicare issue with the 2010 playbook -- don't look at our votes, look at Obamacare, doesn't it scare you? In his debate, Romney handled this perfectly well. But in his one chance to literally debate his plan, Ryan got shoved off the court without anybody calling a foul.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.