"Going into our convention to nominate Gov. Romney for president, we can look back and say we survived the Democratic 'Mediscare' machine," said an aide to Mitt Romney on the eve of the Republican gathering in Florida. Everywhere around the GOP convention site, party delegates, local officials and strategists are expressing new confidence that Team Romney has successfully neutralized the Democrats' long-standing advantage on Medicare.
On Monday morning, pollster Whit Ayres and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour unveiled new research from the Republican group Resurgent Republic suggesting Medicare might no longer pose a mortal threat to the GOP. "Republicans achieve a draw on the Medicare issue when focusing on the cuts to Medicare made by Obama and Democrats in the health care law," Ayres concluded.
Ayres found that by targeting Obamacare's Medicare cuts, and by presenting the Romney-Ryan plan as an effort to "preserve and protect Medicare for current recipients and future generations," Republicans can essentially tie the score between those who side with the GOP and those who side with Democrats. And for Republicans, long intimidated by "Mediscare" campaigns, having a Medicare argument of their own is a huge improvement from years past.
"Is that a different message for Republicans? Yes, it is," says Ayres. "Is it an uphill climb for Republicans? Yes, it is. Does it give Republicans a fighting chance to get a draw or perhaps even tilt the playing field in our direction? Yes, it does."
On the other side, there's no doubt Democrats are surprised that Republicans have chosen to fight on Medicare. That's our issue, they say, and Republicans can't have it. But there are more serious reasons why Democrats believe Romney will eventually lose, and Medicare will remain a winner for Democrats.
The crux of the Democratic argument is this: Most voters have a few basic, long-held, deeply ingrained ideas about what the parties stand for. Business, lower taxes, smaller government -- that's the Republicans. Medicare, Social Security, welfare -- that's the Democrats. Along those lines, many people have believed for generations that Republicans don't really support Social Security and Medicare. Those deeply held beliefs can't be changed quickly.
"Republicans never, ever, ever have nor will win the Medicare argument," says a well-connected Democratic strategist who is not part of the Obama campaign. "The Romney people feel they're clever, they test arguments and the argument works, so they use them. But what they don't do is take the second step and look and check whether it conflicts with people's ingrained ideas."
In other words, when it comes time to vote, Democrats and independents will never fully accept that it is Republicans who would truly "preserve and protect Medicare." And Democrats win the issue again.
Romney elevated Medicare to the highest level of the campaign by picking Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. When some Republicans -- mostly professional political operatives as opposed to conservative thinkers -- objected, arguing it was too dangerous, Romney and his defenders countered that Democrats were always going to use Medicare against Romney so he might as well have the most articulate advocate of Medicare reform as his running mate.
But were Democrats really preparing to launch a full-scale Mediscare attack on Romney? They certainly would have used the issue, but it is by no means clear that Medicare would have risen to its current level of prominence in the campaign had Romney not picked Ryan. This is a fight Romney wanted, and one Republicans now believe they can win -- or at least fight to a draw while winning the election on economic issues.
But there are still those ingrained beliefs.
Ayres doesn't dispute that voters have long-held views of the political parties and Medicare. "But just because they're long-ingrained impressions doesn't mean they're immutable and unchangeable," Ayres says. "We've never had a Democratic president who has taken $716 billion out of Medicare to spend on another program. That will get people's attention. So yes, there are long-ingrained impressions, but that doesn't mean they cannot be changed with a lot of focus and a lot of attention. But it's got to be sincere; it can't be a bunch of rhetoric. And it will take time."
Time? Romney doesn't have much. Assuming views on Medicare really can be changed, can they be changed by Nov. 6?
"We'll see," Ayres answered. Pausing a moment, he added, "I wish I could give you a flat answer on that."
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.