Romney Wades into Third-Rail Politics with Paul Ryan

Mitt Romney is forced to negotiate the consequential politics of Medicare with Ryan as VP.

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Since Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney selected Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, much attention has been paid to how Ryan's proposal to radically overhaul Medicare will impact the election.

The federally-subsidized program, which workers pay into in order to receive health care benefits when they retire, has seen costs increase exponentially as health care costs in general have spiraled out of control. Ryan's budget plan calls on increasing the retirement age and providing the next generation of seniors a fixed dollar voucher to purchase health care from the private sector.

[Read: Paul Ryan VP pick sets up Reagan-esque debate.]

Opponents of the plan point out those ever-increasing costs will rapidly diminish the purchasing power of the vouchers and thus leave seniors without the same level of care. This matters politically because Medicare is an extremely popular program—particularly among seniors, the most voting bloc with the highest turnout. Critical swing-states such as Florida, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania also have out-sized elderly populations, magnifying the political significance of the issue.

Republicans are well aware of this vulnerability and have lambasted President Barack Obama's health care law over cuts made to a portion of Medicare known as Medicare Advantage. It's a line they still are using to score points.

"You see when [Obama] ran for office he said he'd protect Medicare," said Romney during a campaign stop in Ohio on Tuesday. "But did you know that he has taken $716 billion out of the Medicare trust fund?"

[Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

Romney added that the cut was used to fund Obamacare, which he described as "a risky, unproven federal government takeover of healthcare."

"And if I'm president of the United States, we're putting the $716 billion back," he said.

But this is where Romney runs into trouble. To begin with, the president's health care law he criticized was modeled after similar legislation he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts. Further, Ryan's own budget proposal keeps Obama's Medicare cuts, which don't cut money to recipients but instead pare back payments to health care providers, in place. And by embracing the popularity of Medicare and decrying cuts made by Obama he opens himself up for critiques of Ryan's more dramatic changes.

On Monday, Romney tried to separate himself from Ryan's specific budget cutting proposals, saying no to people even if they were from the same party agree on everything, but he provided no examples of where they differed. He's also embraced the Ryan budget in the past.

[10 things you didn't know about Paul Ryan.]

Romney seemed to provide a little bit more mixed messaging as he wound down his stump speech on Tuesday, pledging to repeal the president's unpopular health care law and calling for less government intervention in health care—the antithesis of Medicare.

"I want to get rid of Obamacare, I want to replace it, I want to repeal it and I want to return health care and health care responsibility to our citizens and our health care providers and I want to get the government out of health care," he said.

The resurgence of the health care debate highlights the hypocrisy of many voters, who want to both spend less on entitlements but maintain the same level of benefits.

Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at rmetzler@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter.

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