Rumors spread over the weekend that Republican Budget Chair Paul Ryan is really a Democratic sleeper agent. The story goes that Ryan was recruited by Democratic operatives as a young man and agreed to assume a cover as a deeply conservative Republican. He was hired as a Legislative aide for Conservative Senator Sam Brownback and subsequently wrote speeches for former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp.
Then, in 1998, he won a seat in Congress as a Conservative Republican and began to establish credibility as a Far Right economic conservative.
If the rumor is correct, all of this toiling in the Conservative vineyard was undertaken to develop the credibility he needed to herd his fellow Republicans into a political box canyon where they could be ambushed by waiting Democrats.
Last week this deep undercover operation finally succeeded, when Ryan actually convinced virtually every Republican to vote to end Medicare.
All right, there isn't really a rumor that Ryan is a Democratic sleeper agent. But the result is likely to be the same.
Last Friday, Congressman Paul Ryan and his self-described "Young Gun" colleague, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, got most of their colleagues to willingly jump off a political cliff.
When the political history of this period is written, the Medicare vote held last week will go down as the turning point that doomed Republican chances to keep control of the House in 2012. For Democrats, it will be like shooting fish in a barrel.
In fact, in recent history, I don't remember a major Party in the United States making such a catastrophic political error.
Maybe their own ideology has blinded them from the fact that polling shows that almost two thirds of the American electorate is strongly opposed to cutting - much less eliminating - Medicare as a means of reducing the deficit. And that is before the voters understand in concrete terms what the Republican budget plan means to their own family's economic security.
According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, if the Republican budget were to become law, it would:
· Increase actual overall costs of providing health care to Medicare beneficiaries from around $15,000 per person to $20,000 per person - largely because it would replace Medicare's relatively efficient public insurance program with more costly and inefficient private insurance. For example, only about 3% of Medicare funds go to administrative costs rather than paying for medical care. Private insurance plans, on the other hand, pay shareholders, CEO's, administrators, and sales forces with from 15% to 30% of every premium dollar.
· Cost each senior $6,400 in increased health care costs compared to the current system. The proposal eliminates Medicare's guarantee of health care coverage, and substitutes a voucher for part of a private insurance premium. CBO estimates that the plan will leave the senior on the hook for 61% of health care costs. The Republican proposal replaces Medicare with "coupon-care".
· Even though seniors will pay a great deal more, the government will only save about $600 per Medicare recipient. The higher costs of private insurance will gobble up the rest.
So in other words, the Republicans voted for a plan that would:
· End Medicare and its guaranteed health care benefits.
· Replace it with a voucher that requires seniors to go out and find coverage from private insurance companies.
· Increases their actual spending on health care by $6,400 each, compared to the current system.
· Use these cuts in Medicare spending to give the rich another $200,000 tax break.
That is a political disaster.
In voting to eliminate Medicare - and for the entire Republican budget plan - Republicans in Congress have ignored five basic political facts:
1). It's one thing to prevent people from achieving their aspirations. It's quite another to take something away that they already have - to rip something precious from their hands.
People love Medicare. They love the guarantee that their health care will be covered. They love that they don't have to cope with choosing between private plans, benefit limits, and the fear that their premiums can be arbitrarily increased, or their coverage will be denied.
The polling is clear. In a CNN poll early this month 90% of respondents said they thought funding for Medicare should stay the same or be increased (75% said the same for Medicaid).
Last month a CBS News poll found 76% unwilling to cut Medicare to balance the budget.
The thing that makes it so astonishing, is that many same House Republicans who voted to eliminate Medicare, were actually elected last fall claiming that the Democrat backed Affordable Health Care Act cut Medicare by half a trillion dollars.
They implied that the new health care law cut Medicare benefits. Of course that was not at all true, it actually increased benefits by eliminating the "donut hole" in prescription drug coverage. The cuts were to insurance industry subsidies - not benefits.
But no matter, the Republicans certainly understood the power of the claim that the Democrats voted to cut Medicare. Now Republicans are not just planning to cut Medicare, they voted to end Medicare. Astonishing.
The Democratic slogan next year is simple: Hands off My Medicare.
2). People don't think of Medicare as just another government program - it's health insurance for which they have paid their entire working lives. They think they are owed Medicare benefits.
3). People view the notion that the Republicans should raise out-of-pocket health care costs to seniors to give a tax break to the wealthy as just plain wrong.
As President Obama said in his speech last Wednesday, "They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that's paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That's not right."
When you're on the wrong side of an issue that can be framed in simple right and wrong terms, you're in deep political trouble.
4). Republicans will be subject to the charge that they have taken this outrageous vote because they have been bought and paid for by the private insurance companies that will get their hands on the Medicare trust fund - and by the very wealthiest Americans who benefit from their tax cuts.
It doesn't help the Republican case that over his career, Congressman Paul Ryan has received $2.1 million from health and insurance interests.
The question of motive goes to the most important issue in politics: "whose side are you on?" This vote sends a clear political message that Republicans are not on the side of seniors or future retirees. Instead they are on the side of the Wall Street/CEO class and insurance companies.
5). Finally, their Medicare vote solves the Democrats' major 2012 demographic problem. Obama and the Democrats will do well among younger cohorts of the electorate. But Obama lost seniors by 8% in 2008 - and Democrats lost seniors by 21% in 2010.
The Presidential campaign will be decided by states with relatively old electorates - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Michigan to name a few.
We know from history that Democrats can win while losing seniors by 8%. They can't win while losing seniors by 21%.
If they execute well, Democrats can use the Medicare issue to get a majority of seniors in the next election - virtually dooming any chance the Republicans have of gaining control of the Senate or the Presidency - and massively increasing the odds that Democrats will once again take control of the House.
Before the House vote on the Republican budget last Friday, Democratic-leaning organizations distributed signs with their new slogan: "Hands off My Medicare." They might as well have read: "Go Ahead…. Make My Day."