But who would have predicted that the Democratic position would get its biggest boost from a former Republican House speaker, Newt Gingrich?
In an astonishing political pratfall, Gingrich called Paul Ryan's Medicare reform — a plan that borrowed from an idea initially proposed by Democrats in the late 1990s — "radical," "too big a jump' and "right-wing social engineering." He didn't simply offer a critique of the plan. He bashed it using terms favored by "progressive" liberals.
It's as if he woke up one morning and was struck by some sort of alien political transformation beam, compelling him to go out and cut a few political ads for the Dems.
We're going to be hearing “radical” and “right-wing social engineering” from here to November 2012. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already gleefully firing off emails full of Gingrich quotes to media outlets in every district with a GOP member of Congress.
The real risk is that once again the Republicans will lose an entitlement fight, and if that happens this time, then the chances will be much higher that the nation's financial future will be blighted by higher taxes or skyrocketing interest rates triggered by a bond market revolt.
The Democrats’line is that the Ryan plan will “end Medicare,” and they're getting help from reporters willing to repeat this mendacity. But the Ryan plan would not “end Medicare.”
After 10 years, instead of fee-for-service payments under the current program, benefits would be delivered in the form of premium support. The money would go to an insurance company chosen by the beneficiary, with the support rising at the rate of inflation. This is a formula similar to the popular Medicare prescription drug plan, which fostered competition and resulted in costs more than 40 percent below expectations.
This is hardly radical. The federal employee benefit program is based on a similar concept, as well as plans for employees of several states.
Gingrich's remarks have given invaluable aid and comfort to a Democratic Party that is again playing the old throw-grandma-in-the-snow game while the nation's fiscal health crumbles. President Obama has utterly abdicated on the subject of entitlement reform. Democrats in Congress have little to add, other than to repeat the word “tax” as often as possible.
Gingrich has tried to back away from his foot-in-mouth performance, but it won't wash. Iowa voter Russell Fuhrman no doubt spoke for most Republicans when, on encountering the former speaker in a motel, he told him: “Get out now before you make a bigger fool of yourself.”
In a way, Gingrich's flame-out could be a good thing. The outraged reaction among Republicans shows that the party remains committed to principled, market-based reforms to deal with the budget crisis.
And Gingrich's stumble helps clear the way for more serious contenders. The former speaker's chances were slim to begin with. Now they're nonexistent. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has ended his cartoon candidacy and Mike Huckabee has declined to run.
Some see Mitt Romney as the main beneficiary of Gingrich's pratfall, but Romney is hobbled by his record — specifically the Massachusetts health plan he pushed through that served as a precursor for Obama's health-care legislation.
Romney still has a solid following, but he would not be the best nominee: He would be unable to use the issue of the health-care legislation to full effect.
Beating Obama won't be easy, but it is far from impossible. His “bin Laden bounce” has all but vanished, unemployment is still high, recent numbers suggest the economy is slowing and polls reveal that Americans are profoundly gloomy about the future.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty jumped into the race last week, but his continuing problem is his stubbornly indistinct image. GOP voters are still waiting for one of the contenders to break out of the pack, or for the arrival of a new entrant with a bold message.
ABOUT THE WRITER
E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at email@example.com
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