August 11, 2012

Ryan could be a drag on Romney in Florida

Paul Ryan’s plans to retool Medicare pose challenges in Florida, as does his one-time opposition to the Cuban embargo, a stance anathema to many Cuban Americans.

Republicans are rejoicing at Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate.

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 as a politically risky stance in Florida, a must-win state for Republicans.

Ryan might have another Florida problem: He once opposed the U.S. embargo on Cuba, a now-reversed stance that concerns some in Miami-Dade’s exile community, which is overwhelmingly Republican and had hoped that one of its own, Sen. Marco Rubio, would have been picked as Romney’s running mate. The county’s elderly Cuban population also relies heavily on government assistance, particularly Medicare.

Polls indicate that voters over 50 years old — who make up more than half the Florida electorate — are wary of changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which together pump about $96 billion yearly into the hands of the elderly, the infirm and the hospitals, doctors and other providers who give them care.

By picking Ryan, Romney shows he’s ready to fight for conservative changes to the liberal-legacy programs.

Battle of ideas

“We won’t duck the tough issues … we will lead,” Ryan said in his official acceptance speech in Norfolk, Va. “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.”

At the heart of the controversy is Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicare in the future into a “premium support” system that would directly subsidize insurance companies on behalf of seniors. It would essentially put more caps on future Medicare expenditures.

Democrats prefer to use the “V” word to describe the plan: 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 much more out of pocket in the future. Services could be cut.

Ryan and the plan’s defenders point out that nothing’s free. Someone’s always paying something for Medicare or any other government program. He said he wants to change the plan for those younger than 55 to save the program, which is on an unsustainable path.

A Florida poll last week showed baby boomers, worried about their future, plan to rely more on Social Security and Medicare than they had initially anticipated. So talk of cuts can spook these voters.

Similar to voters overall in other polls, baby boomers in Florida deadlocked 45-46 percent over whether they’d vote for President Barack Obama or Romney, according to an American Association of Retired Person’s survey of 500 older voters last week. Retirees favored Romney over Obama by 48-43 percent, a lead within the poll’s 4.4 percent error margin.

For years, Ryan has weathered attacks for wanting to change Medicare, although he has never been a state- or nationwide candidate. He also has some familiarity with Florida’s aging population: His mother is a part-time resident of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.

With Ryan as the Republican pick, Florida Democrats won’t have to see their nemesis, Sen. Rubio, on a statewide ticket for the second election in a row. Polls indicate Rubio would have given Rubio a modest boost in the state.

Rubio, like other major Republicans, gushed about Ryan Saturday.

“Paul Ryan is a courageous reformer who understands our nation’s challenges, has proposed bold policy solutions to solve them, and has shown the courage to stand up to President Obama and other Washington politicians trying to tear him down,” Rubio said in a statement.

Rubio allies suspect he was a finalist for the vice-presidential slot with Ryan, owing to the similarities between the two: telegenic, young, wonky and part of a new Republican breed of politician that isn’t scared to talk about reforming Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.

Conservatives hope that Rubio’s 2010 election is a sign that talking about Medicare cuts and reform might no longer be a third rail in Florida politics. Depression-era voters are dying out, giving way to Reagan-era retirees more inclined to back conservative changes to liberal programs.

But unlike 2010, a Republican-heavy gubernatorial election year, this presidential election is expected to bring out a disproportionately higher number of Democrats, who are courting Hispanic voters like never before.

Rubio’s plusses

Rubio appeals to Hispanic voters, especially Cuban Americans who make up 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.

A handful of prominent Cuban-American Republicans, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of bucking their own party, expressed concern that Ryan’s old record on the Cuban embargo might disappoint Cuban-American voters, who make up 72 percent of the GOP electorate in Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest county.

Ryan voted at least three times against the embargo, but in recent years he has opposed efforts to lift it, said Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a former congressman and prominent voice in the exile community.

“He was a free-trader and we explained to him the human-rights and terrorist record of the Cuban dictatorship,” Diaz-Balart said. “His record ever since is one of a strong supporter for freedom in Cuba. He is a strong ally.”

Still, in 2009, Ryan seemed opposed to the embargo when he told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “If we’re going to have free trade with China, why not Cuba?” Ryan’s philosophical opposition to the embargo is rooted in the politics of the Midwest, which sees trade opportunities with Cuba.

Romney is scheduled to go into the heart of the exile community Monday at an event at El Palacio de los Jugos on Coral Way.

Beyond Cuban-American politics, Rubio gave Romney an overall boost of about two percentage-points in Florida, according to The Miami Herald’s most recent poll. No other candidate does that.

Rubio is popular in Florida. Ryan is unknown. Rubio wasn’t the face of the Ryan plan, either.

The latest version of the Ryan plan gives 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.

So the elderly wouldn’t be affected.

Obama has called Ryan’s plan “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.

Those are big ifs. Now the sell job — the policy campaign within the presidential campaign — begins.

About 17 percent of the state’s population is older than 65; seniors make up a disproportionately larger segment of the electorate.

Right now, about 3.4 million people directly benefit from Medicare in Florida, which receives about $25.2 billion from the program. Ryan and Romney also want to cap expenditures for Medicaid, a massive $21.4 billion state-federal program in Florida that accounts for a quarter of the state’s budget and has grown in the bad economy. About 3.3 million Floridians receive Medicaid.

At least in the short term, Ryan’s selection transforms the presidential campaign into a policy-heavy discussion.

Doubling down

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.” Obama wants higher taxes on the wealthy, which Republicans call a job killer.

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 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.

But even Republicans might not be on board with wholesale Medicare changes, according to an AARP poll last year of Florida Republican voters. It showed that modest changes to benefits for future retirees are opposed by 66 percent of voters. Only 27 percent favor future reductions, which could include raising the retirement age, though the poll didn’t specifically address that issue.

Asked if they favored or opposed reducing Medicare benefits to help reduce the deficit, only 22 percent liked the idea. About 70 percent didn’t.

In 2010, Republicans reaped political dividends from Obama’s unpopular healthcare plan because it cut $500 billion in projected Medicare spending over a decade.

Now Democrats are ready to repay the favor and talk about Republican Medicare cuts. 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 per-person out-of-pocket expenses would more than double in all states in 2022 under a Ryan-like proposal. Florida’s increase would be the highest, $7,383.

Healthcare inflation

But if Medicare recipients aren’t required to pay more for their services, taxpayers in general will. About 10,000 Americans are projected to retire daily over the next two decades. Healthcare inflation could rise as much as much as 7.5 percent next year, while general inflation could be at just 2 percent.

Obama sought to manage Medicare growth by increasing some taxes and reducing future expenditures, largely through an independent panel.

Ryan’s plan seeks to cap those future expenditures by way of the premium support or “voucher,” which would limit per-person expenditure increases to GDP plus .5 percent. Under one Ryan plan proposal, the premium would subsidize the sick and the poor more than the wealthy and the well.

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 nationwide opposed Ryan’s proposal. Opposition was highest among senior citizens, even though the plan would affect only those 55 and younger.

Many 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. Sen. 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.

Ryan indicated he’s ready to have that debate. But he needs Republicans, and voters at large, with him and Romney.

“We can turn this thing around. Real solutions can be delivered. But, it will take leadership,” he said. “And the courage to tell you the truth.”

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