As expected, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate has caught the attention of voters. But so far, they seem more unnerved than pleased by the choice.
Before becoming Romney's vice presidential pick, Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was best known inside the beltway for his politically risky plan to transform Medicare into a voucher program that would pay lower benefits but be more financially sound. By selecting Ryan, Romney implicitly endorsed such Medicare reforms.
The risks for Romney are obvious, since nearly 50 million seniors receive Medicare benefits—and seniors vote. Picking Ryan also exposed Romney to the inevitable demagoguing by President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats that Romney aims to "end Medicare as we know it," which has already become one of the Democrats' most prominent sound bites.
The attacks on the Romney-Ryan Medicare strategy appear to be working. A new poll from the Pew Research Center shows that more people have been paying attention to the details of Ryan's Medicare plan since he became the VP nominee—and more disapprove. In the poll, 49 percent of people who had heard about Ryan's plan opposed it, while only 34 percent approved. Not surprisingly, opposition is strongest among seniors, with 55 percent of those 65 and older saying they disapprove.
Americans are torn in general about the need to rein in entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which are the biggest drivers of a soaring national debt that threatens Uncle Sam's solvency. In a separate Pew poll from earlier this year, 69 percent of Americans said reducing the budget deficit should be a top national priority. But when asked how to do that, a majority of Americans said Social Security and Medicare should be left alone. Yet it's practically impossible to reduce deficits without reforming costly entitlements.
There are some interesting similarities between the Romney-Ryan Medicare plan and Obama's healthcare reforms. Both address a major problem that can't be solved without costing somebody something. Both are complex and poorly understood by most Americans. That makes voters understandably leery. Support for Obamacare, for instance, is still below 50 percent, even though the plan became law two years ago and parts of it have already been implemented.
Voters still don't understand how Obamacare will work, however, which is probably one reason support remains low. Many people believe bogus claims propagated by opponents of the law, such as that 20 million Americans will be forced to give up the insurance they have, or that middle-class Americans will face a big new tax to finance expanded healthcare coverage. None of that is true, and once the law goes fully into effect in 2014, and the worst predictions fail to occur, Americans may become more comfortable with the reforms.
Ryan's Medicare reforms are merely a proposal at this point, so they are highly vulnerable to distortions that will be hard to disprove if such a plan never goes into effect. While Ryan's plan would, in fact, end Medicare as we know it, for example, so will doing nothing, because on its current course Medicare will become crushingly unaffordable.
But most voters haven't caught on to that yet, and Obama seems unlikely to clue them in. So the debate over Medicare this fall will mostly entail competing hyperbole and lots of scaremongering. Maybe voters are better off not paying attention.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.