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Revisiting the Political Playbook on Medicare

It was once accepted conventional wisdom in politics that messing with federal retirement programs would sink a candidate with older voters. Want to win retiree-rich Florida? Then just attack your opponent as a threat to Social Security or Medicare or both. During the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, Bill Clinton took one little paragraph from Paul Tsongas' treatise, "A Call to Economic Arms,'' in which his rival floated the idea of a 1 percent reduction in cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security. Using the passage to portray Tsongas as an enemy of the retired, Clinton succeeded in winning Florida and permanently damaged Tsongas' campaign.

Democrats thought they had the Big Kahuna this year in the form of the Ryan budget, a document authored by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. It would remake Medicare by allowing future retirees to receive a government subsidy - "premium support," as it's called - to put toward buying insurance on the open market. Democrats were certain that current and soon-to-be retirees would recoil, supporting their candidates as a result.

But it hasn't turned out that way, according to recent polling in swing states. President Obama is indeed considered better to deal with Medicare by a majority of voters in both Florida and Virginia, says a Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS poll, but his edge has narrowed considerably in both states. Obama now has just a six-point advantage on the issue in Florida (down from 15 points last month), and a seven-point edge in Virginia (also down from 15 points last month). The president retains an 11-point advantage on the issue in Ohio.

Among voters 65 and older, it is GOP candidate Mitt Romney who wins the issue in all three states, according to the poll, suggesting that the furor over the Ryan plan is not leading the already-retired to reject the Republican ticket.

While the Obama campaign has blasted the Ryan plan as an attack on traditional Medicare, the Republican ticket has countered with an assault on the Obama health care plan, which trims $716 billion in payments to Medicare providers. While the cuts do not affect benefits, and while the Ryan budget includes the same savings, the GOP counterattack appears to be working.

Medicare, to be sure, is a front-and-center issue in this year's presidential campaign. But it's clear that both sides have lifted a page from the old political playbook. -Susan Milligan

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