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How Committed is Paul Ryan to Destroying Medicare?

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I was going to discuss Sean McElwee’s excellent recent post, but lest it be construed as subtweeting Erik let me clarify first that of course racial  and economic anxieties and resentments cannot be neatly separated. While Trump’s supporters are generally well-off, in marginal electoral college states they’re also disproportionately likely to live in declining economic areas.  Perceptions of declining economic status and declining communities fuel racial resentment and vice versa.

One problem for the Democrats (and I don’t think Erik disagrees although he can correct me), though, is that this precise form of economic anxiety is not easily addressed by policy changes, at least in the short-term. Strengthening the welfare state is very important, but since Trump’s supporters are generally the last-people-standing rather than the victims these policies aren’t likely to attract and might even alienate their support. Strengthening labor is important, but passing card check or even repealing Taft-Hartley isn’t going to immediately bring Carrier back to Indianapolis or GM back to Flint or GE back to Schenectady, and neither would increasing tariffs. The way of life that this segment of voters is pining for can’t be quickly brought back by passing even the most salutary laws. The Democrats should do the right thing, but it won’t necessarily produce immediate political payoffs among the white working class that votes Republican.

One thing that could shift Republican WWC votes back to the Democrats would be for the Republicans to exercise the “mandate” they received by earning fewer votes for president, Senate and House by taking away benefits that members of the WWC count on or expect to count on — like, say, Medicare. Ryan seems to be going full steam ahead, despite the obvious and massive political risks.

Let me be clear: I am not making a heighten-the-contradictions argument. Privatizing Medicare is bad politics for the GOP, but 1)especially in midterm elections it’s possible to survive particular actions that are net negatives, and 2)once Medicare is transformed it won’t be easy to change back. The Democratic Party needs to fight Ryan with everything it has, and given that attacking Medicare is attacking a relatively politically active and affluent constituency it can win this fight the way it won on Bush’s attacks on Social Security.

Indeed, this fight could be a huge moment for the Democratic Party. Ryan’s policies are so unpopular that when you ask focus groups to evaluate them they won’t believe that anything so cartoonishly evil is being proposed.  It’s going to be hard to escape the reality of his intentions if he makes destroying Medicare one of his first major policy battles. Beating Ryan on this could be the best of both world’s politically: a chance to tarnish the Republican brand and improve the Democratic one on an issue of critical importance to many people. And it’s possible. Not easy — the Democrats don’t control any veto points, and you can bet the nation’s media will ready to call anyone attacking Ryan’s plan to replace Medicare with $500 CVS gift cards as a plan to end Medicare as the LIAR OF THE MILLENNIUM. Ryan might decide that he’s OK with burning his party down if he can make Ayn Rand federal policy. But it’s possible, and beating Ryan would be good policy and good politics alike.

 

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