Bad Habits

Why October’s campaign attacks explain next year’s political dysfunction.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)  is interviewed by former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Rep. Paul Ryan on Aug. 21, 2014, in Chicago.

Photo by John Gress/Getty Images

WINGATE, North Carolina—For a short time, there was a feeling, shared by Republicans and Democrats, that Medicare and Social Security were losing their power as third rails in American politics. In the final weeks of the 2014 midterm campaigns, it seems like the electricity is once again flowing nicely. Candidates in opposing camps can agree on little, but they both know that telling horror stories about what your opponent might do to Social Security and Medicare is effective. 

“Kay Hagan cast a tie-breaking vote not only for the Obamacare law but to take $716 million from Medicare to spend on Obamacare,” said Rep. Paul Ryan on Wednesday at North Carolina’s Wingate University, as he campaigned for Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis. Ryan reminded voters that his mother is on Medicare and that Hagan had voted against the program. (The Affordable Care Act reduced the rate of Medicare growth, which Republicans have traditionally not considered a cut, and the reductions were aimed at insurance companies and hospitals, not beneficiaries. Fact-checkers say that this does not constitute a threat to the Medicare system, as Ryan claims.)

Ryan regularly makes it seem as though sensible people could agree on budget reforms if they only reasoned together. He has criticized Democrats, saying that when it comes to entitlement reform, their tactic is “to wait for Republicans to propose solutions, then attack them.” But that’s a pretty good summation of what he’s doing here. No one is going to chance putting forward new reforms if Ryan is going to hit the campaign trail and accuse him or her of “raiding, robbing, and cutting Medicare,” as he did Hagan. 

Campaigning on threats to Medicare and Social Security is a familiar play, but it takes on special meaning when Ryan does it: It’s a testament to just how irresistible it is. After all, Ryan was supposed to be the politician who had touched the third rail of entitlement reform and lived. He proposed changes in Medicare before the last several elections and continues to be re-elected in a district that is not heavily tilted toward Republicans. Democrats attacked Republicans for supporting his plan, but most of these GOP members were also re-elected. But by leveling this blunt attack on Hagan—which obliterates all nuance—Ryan is testifying that the issue is more powerful than any policy details that might explain why a particular reform doesn’t constitute a dire threat to the system. 

Before watching Ryan, I had been in Louisiana to cover Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s race against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy. For two days Landrieu lambasted Cassidy’s plans for Social Security and Medicare. “I want you to talk to the seniors, ’cause they’re going to vote strong in this election—they always do—I want you to tell them my opponent voted to end the Medicare program as we know it,” she said, addressing a group of local female leaders in Baton Rouge. Her attack is actually rooted in Cassidy’s support for the Republican Study Committee budget, which raises the retirement age for Social Security. Ryan and Cassidy also believe in giving Medicare enrollees a fixed amount of money that can be used to buy insurance in the private market. 

Landrieu said she understood the entitlement programs need fixing, but not if it was going to fund tax breaks for millionaires at the expense of working people. “If you’ve been changing hotel beds since you were 20 years old and you’re making $11 to $12 an hour, I think changing beds for 50 years is enough, don’t you? And if you’re building roads in Louisiana in the hot sun, it can be 110 degrees, and when you are driving those tractors and breathing those fumes, I think that 50 years of paving roads is enough.” 

That’s old-time religion in Democratic campaigns, but some Republican campaigns are now sounding a lot like Landrieu. As Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post notes, Republicans are attacking Democrats for Social Security reforms that much of their party supports. For example, Republicans are attacking Georgia Democratic Rep. John Barrow for supporting Ryan’s proposal of raising the age for receiving Social Security. The conservative group Crossroads GPS is running ads attacking Democrats on the same issue. In North Carolina an ad says that Hagan is a “big believer” in a controversial plan that “raises the retirement age.” (The ad is referring to the Simpson-Bowles budget reform plan.) Karl Rove founded Crossroads GPS; you may remember Rove once tried to help President Bush reform the Social Security system but failed because members in Congress worried that they would be attacked in just the way members are being attacked now. Bush supported the idea of raising the retirement age, too.

Stalwarts in both parties say that their plans are the real reforms and that the criticisms of their opponents are totally valid. When you watch this play out on the campaign trail, those facts don’t seem to matter at all, nor does the fact that every year for the last six years in a row the Congressional Budget Office has reduced its estimate for how much the federal government will need to spend on Medicare in coming years. The political benefit of the attacks are too juicy for the details to get in the way. The next time a budget deal collapses over entitlement reforms, it will be because these vignettes from the campaign trail are the ones that Congress members remember best.