Beware of Swiftboating on…Medicare. The Opsec group is making noises right now about whether or not Barack Obama deserves credit for ordering the Navy SEALs into Pakistan, and that is understandably being interpreted as the “Swiftboating” of 2012, but I think that will prove to be just noise in comparison with what could be the stealthy swiftboating that could potentially happen to Obama over Medicare.
Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate and immediately the ticket has begun a pre-emptive strike on Obama over the issue of Medicare, signaling an awareness of Romney-Ryan’s vulnerability on this issue, in light of the draconian measures which will be imposed on the popular Medicare program if the Ryan budget wins the day.
Democrats are understandably psyched to run against something as wildly unpopular as the Ryan budget. Why wouldn’t they be exuberant? Historically, Democrats have championed and protected Medicare, and the Ryan plan proposes to revamp (sorry, I mean “strengthen” – yeah right!) Medicare by essentially replacing it in many cases with a 32% off coupon (and the coupon gets smaller year-after-year due to inflation).
Yet with a deft pivot, the Romney-Ryan ticket has opened up a line of attack on the Obama campaign, tying the relatively unpopular Obamacare program to Medicare, stating that (logic and context be damned) Obama is looting Medicare to pay for Obamacare. I say “logic and context be damned” because the premise of Obamacare is to make healthcare available and cheaper for more people, goals which are shared by the Medicare program.
Also, logic and context be damned because Obamacare actually attempts to improve Medicare by reducing payments to providers in an effort to keep costs down, but not cutting services and benefits, whereas Ryan’s plan envisions cutting money to pay for services to seniors. Hmmmm…..if all the facts are out, which plan will be more popular to the individual citizen?
So I understand the celebrating and the end-zone dancing. But Democrats must remain vigilant against the stealthy Swiftboat-type campaign being waged against them. In 2004, John Kerry touted his military record as a great foil to the obviously entitled and pampered George W. Bush, who had managed to spend the Vietnam War Stateside.
In contrast, Kerry had volunteered for service, had actually seen combat and was decorated for his actions. This was to be John Kerry’s great leveler against Bush in the campaign; one man had actually fought in a war and won medals, the other man had hidden behind wealth and family connections to avoid the risks of combat. Easy pickings right? By the time the Republican and conservative assault against Kerry’s war record had mercifully abated, one important truth stood out: muddying up the waters will forever be a go-to tactic for conservatives when the facts don’t fit the desired narrative.
In an arguably effective campaign, the Swiftboat vets managed to cast doubt on Kerry’s war record, despite the obvious superiority of Kerry’s war record to Bush’s. In debating how meritorious Kerry’s accomplishments and record actually were, the forgotten point was how badly Bush’s own war record looked stacked alongside Kerry’s record. Now, a similar tactic is being employed against the Obama campaign: turn Medicare into a debate on “is or isn’t Obama cutting Medicare with Obamacare”, and shift the spotlight off Ryan’s truly catastrophic (from the perspective of seniors, who are the ostensible beneficiaries of the program) plans for Medicare.
On the bright side, however, Democrats can take comfort in the differences between the ‘04 Swiftboating and this time around. For starters, Obama is a likeable incumbent instead of the somewhat-aloof challenger John Kerry. This gives him a number of advantages that Kerry did not have. Obamacare notwithstanding, Obama is–like Bush–an apparently likeable figure. It’s harder to attack a likeable President.
Moreover, as an incumbent, Obama is already well-defined and has amassed a comprehensive record over the past three-plus years as President. Consequently, the risk of being defined by Romney on a single point like Medicare is substantially lower for Obama. In contrast, Kerry was relatively unknown to many Americans at the onset of the Swiftboat attacks and substantially more susceptible to assaults on a single issue such as his war record.
Of course, a caveat: Obamacare actually is considered to be Obama’s signature accomplishment, much like John Kerry’s centerpiece was his war record. However, Obama’s record is too comprehensive and massive to be contained by attacks on one issue alone. Ryan, on the other hand, can still be predominantly defined by Obama as “Mr. Kill Medicare”, just as Obama has recently predominantly defined Romney as “Mr. Didn’t Pay Taxes” and “Mr. Retroactively Retired from Bain” before that.
Another difference between Swiftboat ’04 and ‘12 is that, on a visceral level, Medicare simply is not as sexy a political issue as Kerry’s war record. Arguing over whether Obama is cutting Medicare as opposed to simply cutting out waste and reducing future payments to providers doesn’t capture the imagination as well as heated debates on patriotism, shirking duty, implicit charges of cowardice and a dash of treason for good measure.
Finally, the veterans prosecuting the Swiftboat ‘04 attack were combat veterans themselves. Regardless of the veracity of their claims, the veterans were at least in a zone of comfort. Their attacks centered on matters with which they were familiar (combat decorations, military policy, etc), and they were on ideological ground which felt familiar to them (i.e. impugning candidate Kerry’s patriotism, protecting the honor of their comrades-in-arms). On the other hand, Romney and Ryan are lobbing Medicare attacks on Obama from unfamiliar terrain…essentially accusing Obama of doing to Medicare (cutting Medicare funds) what they themselves have supported, pushed for and encouraged in the past.
On this last point lies the exposed flank of the Romney-Ryan Medicare attacks. Obama has to bring the hammer down with the simple message: “No – that’s what you want to do to Medicare.” I envision an endless loop of video clips: Romney and Ryan accusing Obama of cutting Medicare, run side-by-side with past statements from Romney and Ryan talking about how Medicare needs to be cut. Draw relentless attention to the craven flip-maneuver the Romney-Ryan ticket is attempting to execute in the Medicare fight.
If Democrats remain vigilant and meet this latest attack head-on, there is no reason that the Swiftboat ‘12 version will work like in 2004. In fact, some political experts now dispute that the Swiftboat attacks had as significant an impact on that race as is generally thought. However, better not to tempt the shifting winds of Fate and neglect a stealth issue. Confront it directly, discredit it and the attacker, and continue talking about tax returns, Ayn Rand, women’s rights, and hypocrisy all the way until November 6.