Who could have imagined that Mitt Romney would be attacking President Obama on Social Security in the election's home stretch, and not the other way around
Yet that reality is among the reasons that, no matter the outcome, this presidential race may go down as a major turning point in American politics: when the third rails of Medicare and Social Security lost their shock value.
Why might this be the case? It seems that trillion-dollar deficits and bipartisan agreement on the need for fiscal reform have eroded confidence that the government will deliver on promised benefits.
Selling Reforms To an extent far surpassing any previous candidate, Mitt Romney has offered detailed plans to transform both programs, making Medicare compete more directly with private insurers and putting Social Security's finances on a more sustainable path.
Far from being a millstone around his candidacy, Romney is wielding his entitlement reform plans as a weapon — on the stump and in campaign ads.
"President Obama did not repair our economy. He did not save Medicare and Social Security. He did not tame the spending and borrowing. He did not reach across the aisle to bring us together," Romney said in Iowa on Friday while promising to deliver "big change.
In an ad running in Ohio, Romney says the election is "about who can get the middle class in this country a bright and prosperous future," warning that, "Under President Obama: Medicare And Social Security At Risk.
'Dog That Didn't Bark' By contrast, Obama's only noteworthy discussion of Social Security came in the first debate, when he said he and Romney had "a somewhat similar position.
The debate over Medicare's future has been hard fought on both sides, without a clear winner. NBC pollster Peter Hart recently called Medicare "the dog that didn't bark" in this election.
Democrats had invested great hope that Medicare could be their go-to issue after Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special House election in a New York district seen as relatively safe for the GOP. That May 2011 race was all about Paul Ryan's plan to turn the senior health care program into a fixed benefit to purchase private coverage.
Ryan's pet Medicare reform ran into turbulence right off the launch pad when Newt Gingrich dubbed it "right-wing social engineering." But version 2.0 of Medicare reform pitched by Romney and Ryan preserves a government option and allows for benefits to grow a good deal faster than Ryan initially envisioned. It even boasted Democratic support from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.
With even the Democratic policy wonk community divided over Romney's approach, it shouldn't be a surprise if Obama's warning — the government plan would wither and seniors would be at the mercy of insurers — has had limited impact.
ObamaCare Blunts Attack Meanwhile, Romney has returned fire, claiming that Medicare would be hurt by the $716 billion in Medicare cost-reductions that were plowed back into Obama-Care's insurance expansion. Rejecting those savings (which also were penciled into the House GOP budget) would make Romney's spending targets harder to achieve, but few voters wear green eyeshades.
On Social Security, Obama's assertion that the campaigns have a similar perspective on Social Security — tweak it, don't overhaul it — covered up substantial differences. Obama has endorsed raising the income level subject to Social Security's 12.4% tax (shared by employee and employer). He's put modest benefit cuts on the table, but it's unclear how far he'd go.
Still, Obama supporters on the left believe his lack of combativeness on Social Security speaks volumes. Although the campaign put out a clarification after Obama's debate answer met with criticism, progressives were far from reassured. The liberal website Firedoglake ran a piece headlined: "Obama Campaign Makes Sure You Know Obama Plans to Cut Social Security.
Romney's plan: No change in benefits for those 55 and up; a gradual retirement-age hike to keep up with rising life expectancy; and benefit curbs weighted toward higher earners.
Those on the left who think the Social Security safety net needs to be expanded are in no mood to rally around Obama's murky position. Although one might expect a prolonged period of high unemployment to bolster support for more safety-net spending, voter surveys show there's no such consensus.
A Pew Research Center poll after the first debate found Obama and Romney were virtually tied, 50%-49%, on whose policies would help the middle class.
A recent poll by the Public Notice, a nonpartisan group focused on sustainable budgets, found that 54% of middle-class families preferred Romney to have a hand in setting their family budget vs. 36% for Obama.
Perhaps voters have come to doubt the ability of politicians to make promises they can keep. If that's the case, the failure to reform Social Security since President Clinton put it on the top of the agenda in 1998 has been a costly one for the program's most avid defenders.