Obama can’t ignore Romney’s Medicare ‘raid’ attack, but he can make it costly

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Paul Ryan during G.O.P. response to Obama's 2012 budget. ()
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Blake Zeff

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This weekend, Paul Ryan took the Romney campaign's primary new campaign message to Florida seniors: "The president raids $716 billion from the Medicare program to pay for the Obamacare program,” he told a gathering of retirement community residents.

This followed a week in which Mitt Romney himself talked about Obama's "raid" on Medicare to pay for Obamacare.

Neither Romney nor Ryan has mentioned at any point that the aforementioned billions are actually savings which come from places like reimbursement reductions to providers, with benefits untouched. Nor did they mention the fact that Romney’s preferred plan, the one that Ryan wrote, calls for the very same savings to occur.

The question isn't whether what they're saying is accurate, though. (Spoiler alert: No.)

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The question is: What's to stop them from repeating themselves until the Medicare issue is negated as an advantage for the Obama campaign? 

What's happening here, in political terms, is that with Ryan’s controversial budget plan calling for aggressive reductions to key programs like Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid—and the Obama campaign planning to focus on those planned reductions from now till Election Day—the Romney campaign knows it must “get ahead of the story” by explaining the issue to voters before the other side does it for them.

So they're saying that Obama's the one who seeks to cut Medicare as quickly as Obama attacks them for doing the same. Best-case scenario for Romney is voters believe it. Second-best scenario: Voters believe both campaigns are just saying reckless things about the other, and the issue is muddied.

The question for the Obama campaign, faced with this tactic, is whether to engage, even at risk of highlighting falsehoods that might otherwise go ignored. And here, the answer is emphatically yes.

The old political cliché, "When you're explaining, you're losing," makes some political sense when the topic or accusation is a distraction from the campaign’s core message and you don't want to give oxygen to it. So if Mitt Romney wants to talk about jobs and the economy—something he hasn’t been very successful doing of late—he must avoid at all costs spending time explaining when he paid taxes and why he won’t release his returns. His attempt to starve the issue, even as the Obama campaign savages him for it, may be awkward, but it's not hard to see his motive for doing it.

What differentiates Obama's calculation about how to respond to the Medicare attack is the subject matter and its centrality to this campaign. The conversation over how each candidate would approach safety-net programs for seniors is one the Obama team wants to have; protecting those programs is far more popular than reducing them. In fact, it's the most potent attack the president has at his disposal—this is a topic the Obama campaign must talk about, as much as possible.

To ignore the Romney-Ryan attacks on Medicare, on the assumption that voters will know them to be spurious (everyone knows Democrats are the party of Medicare!), would be to hand them a success in muddying the Medicare debate. Such a decision would effectively neutralize the issue, and would amount to political malpractice on the part of the president’s campaign.

The Romney campaign is daring them to engage, and they must accept. That means hammering away on the issue using paid advertising, and pitching fact-checks and clarifying stories to mainstream media organizations. They should be making sure their supporters and on-the-fence voters have fact-based talking points, promulgating them on email, social media and their website. Romney-Ryan media events should be bracketed with Obama campaign calls, events, and spokespeople to both pre-but and rebut the false claims. The campaign can't afford to do anything less.

They seem to be well aware of this, judging by their early reaction.

A commercial out late last week, called “Facts,” leads with a female narrator saying, "Now Mitt Romney's attacking the president on Medicare. The nonpartisan AARP says Obamacare 'cracks down on Medicare fraud, waste and abuse, and strengthens guaranteed benefits ...'"

The ad goes on to explain that AARP finds that Ryan’s plan would “undermine” the program and could cause higher costs to beneficiaries. In addition to leveraging the authoritative view of AARP, the campaign has received supportive fact-checks on the issue from adjudicators like Time, PolitiFact and ABC News.

There's a point to doing this: If an assertion is broadly and firmly debunked by parties that are considered to be objective, it attaches a cost to continuing to spout it.

In the G.O.P. primary, when Michele Bachmann inaccurately claimed the HPV vaccine pushed by Rick Perry led to mental retardation, the comment became discredited forcefully enough that her own reputation suffered with each successive mention. This has to be the goal of the Obama campaign with Romney’s Medicare argument.

Because Romney has little choice but to keep pressing the attack. He chose Paul Ryan, and now owns his positions. Muddying the waters on this issue isn’t a particularly honest way to campaign, but he’s clearly decided that the alternative—fully embracing unpopular cuts to popular programs—just isn’t an option.

Remember that exalted conversation about budget priorities and the role of government in modern society that we were promised when the Ryan pick was announced? This is what it's going to look like.