The Promise-Keeper

Paul Ryan’s successfully vague campaign to promise “current seniors” the moon.

Republican Vice Presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan speaks during the Victory Rally in Florida on August 18, 2012 in The Villages, Florida.

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan speaks on Aug. 18 in The Villages, Fla.

Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images.

One of the pure joys of campaign reporting is the “headlines” e-mail. When a candidate has a particularly good day—a killer debate, a speech that goes off with no falling lights or flags—journalists get a missive from the campaign that runs through the bedazzled takes of your peers. The subtext is this: Why haven’t you written your story about how fantastic we’re doing?

On Saturday, shortly after Rep. Paul Ryan spoke at The Villages in Florida, the Romney campaign sent out no fewer than 14 incredible headlines. “Nothing but Cheers for Paul Ryan’s Medicare Plan at The Villages,” reported the Tampa Bay Times. (The planned community, where souped-up golf carts dominate the roads, is a Republican stronghold.) “Ryan Campaigns With Mother, Vows To Protect Medicare for Seniors,” reported the Hill.

And so on. The point of all this: proving that the first “Medi-scare” battle of the election is ending and that Republicans have fought it to a draw. Ryan got his message down to a zinger, and repeated it all week. “We want this debate,” he said. “We need this debate. And we will win this debate.”

It just depends what the meaning of this is. To keep on winning the Medicare debate, Ryan needs to please three groups of people. They are: conservative voters who are fine with any Medicare scale-back, conservatives who are fine with any Medicare reforms that don’t affect them, and swing voters who aren’t sure what they want. The campaign has moved on now, and our cable chyrons and Web leads have been given over to Todd Akin. Look back at Week 1, though, and Ryan’s done a stellar job pleasing all parties.

What do we know about the anti-Medicare conservatives? They are not numerous, but they exist. On Friday, right before Ryan flew to Florida, I saw him speak for 20 minutes in Springfield, Va. Before he got there—actually, before a road show that included black Democrat turned Republican Artur Davis and unsuccessful Obamacare-slayer Ken Cuccinelli—I polled Ryan fans on what they wanted to happen with Medicare. The “just end it already” crowd skewed young and talked plain.

“I don’t want to give money to the government that I’m not going to get back,” said Grace Kennedy, a 14-year-old student who’d swung by the rally with her mother. “I don’t want to be paying for Social Security when I get a job. I’m going to be saving money. And I’m sorry, but if there are people who aren’t thinking about that, it’s their fault.”

More numerous: the “Medicare for me, then no more” types. They were older. King Dietrich, 54, is just old enough to make it into the new “premium support” program if Romney-Ryan won and implemented the budget chairman’s plan. “If I understand the Ryan plan correctly,” he said, “I’ll have an option by the time I get there, whether I want traditional Medicare or whether I want a voucher.” Pat Tilleny, who would only say politely that she was in her 60s, was confident that Romney and Ryan wouldn’t really end the Medicare program. One reason, she said, was that “Ann Romney has MS.” Clearly, the GOP ticket was going to look out for people.

And after that, what would Romney and Ryan do to Medicare? They’d keep it for the people who paid into it. Dietrich called the Obama administration’s promise to find $716-odd billion in Medicare payment reductions a “scam,” moving money from a program that worked into Obamacare, which could never work. “I don’t want to pay for anyone else’s health care,” he said. “I don’t want to pay for your health care. No offense—I don’t know you! What I’m saying is that I don’t want to pay for sex changes for anybody. I don’t want to pay for somebody’s cosmetic surgery.”

When Dietrich said that, I heard an echo of an old Tea Party argument from 2010. It was a seven-word slogan that made liberals guffaw: “Get your government hands off my Medicare.” As my old colleague Tim Noah pointed out, this was a newly popular version of an old, odd myth—that Medicare wasn’t really a government program. Government programs were unsatisfying and ineffective. Medicare worked. Surely, it was better than a government program.

Ryan brought back that argument and fed it Miracle-Gro. In both Florida and Springfield, Ryan claimed that Obama, and only Obama, was cutting the program that seniors loved. “The president raids $716 billion from the Medicare program to pay for the Obamacare program,” he said in The Villages. “Medicare should not be used as a piggy bank for Obamacare. Medicare should be used to be the promise that it made to our current seniors.”

He repeated the killer verb, raid, one more time in the speech. You hear that word plenty when Ryan discusses programs that “current seniors”—that’s another clip-and-save phrase—use and adore. In the past, when Ryan has talked about allowing Social Security to be privatized, he’s said the move would “put an end to the raid of the Social Security trust fund.” To keep those current seniors happy, Ryan needs to assure them that they’re pulling the ladder up behind them. He was fairly clear about that in the Villages Medicare speech. “To save it for this generation,” Ryan said, “you have to reform it for my generation so it doesn’t go bankrupt when we retire.”

It’s solid campaign patter. Ryan alternates between the specific, like when the plans would switch over, and the vague. He’ll keep “the promise” of Medicare, which is different than keeping Medicare as it is. He’ll keep a “guarantee” of coverage, which is different than keeping it a full-coverage entitlement. I don’t see anyone who’s already inclined to vote Republican having a problem with this. And those swing voters? They’ve got to be reading the pretty headlines.