A Big Ideas Campaign, With Few Specifics On a Key Issue

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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at Palacio De Los Jugos in Miami, Fla. on August 13, 2012.

Miami, Fla.

Since picking Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has pledged repeatedly to wage a campaign of ideas. But the specifics have so far been hard to come by.

Romney cast his decision to tap the architect of Republican budget policy as a gesture of his commitment to elevate his campaign and zero in on the starkly different governing philosophies between the two parties. As he crisscrosses the country on a four-day bus tour of five battleground states, however, Romney has yet to stake out a clear position on his newly minted running mate’s signature proposal to overhaul federal health programs. During a press conference on the muggy tarmac of Miami International Airport Monday afternoon, Romney dodged a series of questions about how his vision for Medicare dovetails with Ryan’s controversial blueprint.

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Asked whether he could identify specific differences between his Medicare plan and Ryan’s, Romney responded, “There may be. We’ll take a look at the differences.” Pressed further, Romney ducked again, saying merely that the two were on “the same page,” with points of agreement that “outweigh any differences there may be.”

“We haven’t gone through piece by piece and said, ‘Oh, here’s a place where there’s a difference,’” the former Massachusetts governor told reporters. “I can’t imagine any two people, even in the same party, who have exactly the same positions on all issues.”

Romney’s hazy explanation comes as Democrats launch an effort to define Ryan, 42, as a right-wing ideologue who would eviscerate the social safety net to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. The corollary to this onslaught is a bid to tether Romney to Ryan’s budget, which would slash programs like Pell Grants and food stamps, turn Medicaid into a block-grant program administered entirely by the states and convert Medicare to a system in which the government provides subsidies for beneficiaries to buy private insurance. (Under Ryan’s plan, people over 65 in 2022 could keep the current system; the overhaul would generate savings because the subsidies wouldn’t keep pace with escalating health care costs.)

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As expected, Democrats quickly ramped up their attempt to link the two Republicans’ approach to budget policy. “There is no distinction between what the Republican Congress has been proposing the last two years … and what Gov. Romney wants to do,” Vice President Joe Biden said Monday as he campaigned in North Carolina, where Romney will return Wednesday.

Romney’s advisers were waiting for the broadside. The Ryan budget, which House Republicans have twice passed, is a familiar brickbat which Democrats have wielded effectively in recent Congressional races. It’s the reason why skeptics suggested the Wisconsin Congressman was a risky pick. While Republicans promoted the budget as evidence of Ryan’s vision, courage and intellect, Democrats are convinced the plan will damage the GOP ticket. A recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll reflected widespread unease about tampering with the current Medicare system. Nearly 8 in 10 respondents opposed scaling back Medicare benefits to help reduce the federal deficit; 58% said they preferred to keep the system as is.

Republicans say the changes are necessary because spiking health care costs are depleting the government’s coffers. “I can’t tell you about the politics of something like the Medicare issue, but I can tell you about the truth,” Romney said Monday. “And the truth is we simply cannot continue to pretend like a Medicare on track to become bankrupt at some point is acceptable. We must take action to make sure that we can save Medicare for coming generations.”

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Anticipating that Ryan’s spot on the ticket would thrust Medicare politics to a central place in the campaign, Republicans have tried to recast the issue as a liability for President Obama, whose controversial health-care law calls for Medicare funding to be reduced by $700 billion over the next decade. “If any person in this entire debate has blood on their hands in regard to Medicare, it’s Barack Obama. He’s the one that’s destroying Medicare,” RNC chairman Reince Preibus said Sunday. Campaigning through Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Florida, Romney has blistered the President along the same lines. Yet Ryan’s budget would leave those same cuts in place, and in other ways go further.

Choosing Ryan enabled Romney to reboot his campaign, ditching the sputtering plan to frame the race as a referendum on the president and instead defining it as a choice between two divergent doctrines of governance. But the promises to fight a high-minded and idea-focused campaign has quickly given way to speeches peppered with airy applause lines. There’s still nearly three months until Election Day, but so far the new campaign of big ideas is beginning to look like the old one.

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