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Is the Medicare debate elevated or enervating?

The selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate promised a clear, above-board debate over budgetary choices. The Obama-Biden ticket foresees some cuts in entitlement spending combined with higher taxes for the wealthy. Romney-Ryan proposes across-the-board tax cuts combined with more sweeping changes in entitlements, including turning Medicaid into a block grant to states and giving future Medicare recipients vouchers to buy insurance on the private market.

So it was both puzzling and dispiriting to see Romney standing in front of a white board last week, pointing out that Obama has sliced $716 billion from Medicare while Romney-Ryan would restore full funding. These claims defy fact-checking because almost any provision, looked at in the abstract, can be presented as either a cut or an attempt to deliver benefits more efficiently. (This is true with both the Obamacare cut in Medicare reimbursements and Romney’s voucher plan.)


Rather, what was disappointing about Romney’s appearance wasn’t his self-serving presentation of the facts, but the realization that Romney is unprepared or unwilling to promote his own plan. A campaign that should be between two competing visions is instead on its way to becoming another familiar, hide-your-face competition to characterize the other guy’s plan as a betrayal of seniors.

The Obama campaign deserves some blame for this, with its rush to sound the alarms over Ryan’s budget. But Obama’s been saying the same things about Ryan’s budget for months. Romney, with his vexing pattern of taking conservative stances and then covering them up with a lot of double talk, is the greater mystery. Is he comfortable defending Ryan’s proposals or not? As many commentators have pointed out, Ryan’s budget, which passed the GOP-led House with Romney’s eager encouragement, included the same $716 billion Medicare cut as Obamacare, plus more. Romney has since tweaked his plan to restore some of the funding.


But watching the reaction to Romney’s appearance on TV, it’s hard not to feel that a rare chance for a principled, elevated debate about Medicare has turned into a rather familiar discussion about Obama’s alleged lack of solutions and Romney’s alleged obtuseness.