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Both Parties Roll the Dice on Medicare Issue

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The selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as the GOP vice presidential nominee has put the issue of Medicare front and center in the campaigns.

My initial assumption about the issue wasn't all that different from most observers. I knew Democrats would use the Ryan budget and Medicare even if he had not been added to the ticket, but I assumed that the selection of the Wisconsin lawmaker as Romney's running mate would make the issue even more salient and improve Democrats' chances in the 2012 elections.

But after speaking with a number of strategists and operatives, I'm not sure how the issue will shake out in November.

One veteran Democratic strategist surprised me recently by being skeptical that Medicare would be a winning issue for his party. The health care bill has changed how people, including seniors, feel about health care programs and costs, he argued. Things aren't as simple as they were in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Democrats used Social Security and Medicare so effectively in Congressional elections.

But another Democratic strategist argued that the issue is the best one that Democrats have, and insisted, "Yes, the Medicare message was stale [after being used for over three decades], but the Ryan plan and putting Ryan on the Republican ticket has refurbished it as an issue."

Republicans are also split on the issue.

An Aug. 23-24 auto-dial poll of 1,170 likely voters conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee found more than 54 percent of respondents saying that they did not believe "Republicans want to end Medicare as we know it so they can give tax breaks to millionaires." And there are some Republicans who believe the Medicare issue has evolved over the years so that Americans now understand that doing nothing is not an alternative.

But plenty of Republicans remain very nervous about the issue. Few believe that it will be a winner for their candidates, and one GOP strategist worried that voters might well identify the GOP as the party most likely to cut Medicare, since Republicans have talked for years about cutting government programs and spending.

Mostly, Republicans simply are hoping that the partisan bickering over who did what to Medicare and which party wants to protect it will result in a wash, with neither party having a clear advantage.

While you can find poll numbers to prove whatever you want about Medicare, some things clearly are true. Most voters don't want to eliminate Medicare or replace the current system with a voucher. Given what they've heard, they oppose the Ryan approach to Medicare (Aug. 22-25 ABC News/Washington Post poll), and they also think that Medicare is extremely or very important to their "financial security in retirement" (a mid-August AP-GfK poll).

But the question is not merely whether voters like Medicare or support the Ryan budget. The question is whether, and how, the issue influences people's votes - and particularly the votes of seniors - in November.

If Medicare turns out to be the decisive issue that Democrats believe it will be, the fight for the House could get more interesting.

But if seniors conclude that their benefits are safe with Paul Ryan and people in their 40s and early 50s believe that doing nothing is a greater risk than adopting the Ryan plan, then the issue won't have nearly the bite - nor the electoral results - that Democrats now hope.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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