What Mitt Really Believes About Entitlements

Protecting Social Security and Medicare

It’s hard to say if Mitt Romney’s declaration the other night in Florida that Republicans “will never go after Medicare or Social Security, we will protect those programs” helped him win big in the state’s primary. But it signaled that the skirmish over those programs is over, and the battle is on. Trying to calm the fears of Floridians about cuts to those programs, he told his listeners “there’s only one president in history that’s cut Medicare $500 billion. And that’s Barack Obama.” Why did he do it? “He did it to pay for Obamacare.” Two jabs at the president for openers. That line worked for Republicans in the midterm elections. It looks like they are hoping for magic a second time.

The liberal community went ballistic, and hastily got reporters on a conference call with Florida congresswomman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Ed Coyle, who heads the Alliance for Retired Americans. They slammed Romney’s remarks, noting the former Massachusetts governor has supported privatized accounts for Social Security and has supported a voucher arrangement for Medicare. Wasserman-Schultz called Romney’s comments “patently dishonest.” A reporter from The Hill who was on the call reported that Joe Scarborough, the conservative co-host of Morning Joe, called Romney’s remarks pathetic, adding: “That is the most shameful demagoguery that I have heard on the campaign trail yet this year. It’s just unspeakable. It is unspeakable because this country is going bankrupt.”

The Hill story characterized Scarborough’s comments as “friendly fire.” But was it really so friendly? Romney’s stump talk and Scarborough’s take on it deserve a bit more comment. They show why it’s important that the media which reports on such remarks—including bloggers who rush to circulate a word or two that fit with their own political inclinations—listen closely and read between the lines. Was Romney saying he would never go after Medicare and Social Security? Not really.

He went on to say that he would protect Medicare and Social Security for those currently retired or those nearing retirement, and he would protect those programs for future generations, adding he would protect seniors and young people with “programs designed to keep them well and safe.” Whew! There’s a lot of stuff there, but it roughly translates to this: he will leave the programs alone for the 55-plus crowd, but then change them for those under that age. That means Medicare and Social Security would be radically different than they are today.

Scarborough was trying to show Romney’s hypocrisy, but he did it in a way that seemed to suggest that Scarborough was actually on the side of seniors, while injecting some Republican talking points into the conversation: “To tell senior citizens that the program that is going to bankrupt America—unless we figure out a way to bend the cost curve—is going to be protected forever, and can you believe that Barack Obama cut $500 billion from it? You know what? It’s what we called Mediscare in ’95 and ’96.”

The takeaway: The descriptions of what the candidates have done and are going to do about Medicare and Social Security are going to be very slippery. Impressions, false or true, count with voters. One place to begin is for the press to point out that while Obama did cut $500 billion from Medicare, mostly in the form of lower government payments to hospitals, those cuts did not affect the basic Medicare benefits for any senior. The impression Romney left… well, it was basically a half truth. Journos and voters, take note!

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , , ,