Waukesha, Wisc.
So much for conventional wisdom. These things were considered either highly unlikely or impossible before August 10: Mitt Romney picking Paul Ryan as his running mate; the Republican presidential ticket choosing to campaign on Medicare reform; and Republicans actually winning that political fight.

But Mitt Romney did pick Paul Ryan as his running mate. And the new Romney-Ryan ticket is, in fact, choosing to fight on Medicare reform. “Usually Republicans are talking about a lot of other things, but Medicare’s one of those that’s very important to talk about,” said Romney at a fundraiser Thursday in Greer, South Carolina. “We want this debate,” said Ryan, in an appearance the night before at his alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “We need this debate. And we will win this debate.” 

It’s early, but so far Ryan is right. Republicans, for the moment anyway, are winning the debate about Medicare reform.

One thing is clear: The campaign today is not the campaign it was before Paul Ryan was chosen. The 2012 presidential election will not be a narrow referendum on President Obama and the economy. Instead, it’ll be a bigger debate—about the short-term economy, to be sure, but also about the future of the country and about presidential leadership. 

The Romney case is a simple one: On the economy, President Obama led and failed. On foreign policy, he led from behind (some might say “followed”). And on deficits, debt, and entitlement reform, he didn’t lead at all. 

After Romney won the Wisconsin primary on April 3, effectively winning the Republican nomination, his campaign focused on the unemployment rate and the near-term economy, making the case that “Obama Isn’t Working.” When Gallup started its daily presidential tracking poll on April 15, Romney was leading Obama 47-45 percent. On August 10, the day before Romney formally announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, the race was tied, 46-46 percent. The RealClearPolitics average over that same timeframe had Obama growing his lead slightly, from 46.8-44.2 percent (+2.6 points) on April 15 to 48.3-44.1 percent (+4.2 points) on August 11. In the 10 polls taken by media organizations over the month before Ryan was picked, Romney was up in just 1, and in others he was behind by as much as 10 points. The day before Ryan was announced, NBC’s First Read declared: “It’s not even a race—Obama’s ahead.” 

On its own, that’s not surprising; leads in presidential races come and go. But what made it remarkable, and worrisome for the Romney campaign, was that Obama grew his lead as the country’s already poor economic condition deteriorated further. Over those four months, Americans saw disastrous unemployment reports—with average jobs gains of less than 100,000 per month—and virtually every discussion of the economy included the possibility that the United States would slip back into recession. Whatever the appeal of running safe, of running as the default alternative to an ineffective president, it plainly wasn’t working. 

If the change in course was clear the moment the world learned that Paul Ryan would be Romney’s running mate, it was dramatically underscored at a homecoming rally here in Ryan’s native Wisconsin the following day. 

 The event itself was just what the Romney campaign hoped it would be—a raucous affair that energized both the crowd and the candidates. An emotional Paul Ryan spoke warmly of his upbringing in Janesville and implored the audience to work hard to defeat President Obama. The crowd was filled with the kind of giddy excitement that results in awkward hugs and high-fiving with strangers. Romney, in what was perhaps the best speech of his campaign, told the audience why he’d chosen Ryan and touched on the themes of the big campaign to come. 

But the crowd in Waukesha was oblivious to the real news, which
was delivered quietly to the Blackberrys and iPhones of the reporters covering the campaign. “I wanted to advise you that Congressman Ryan will be visiting central Florida next weekend,” wrote Brendan Buck, a Romney campaign communications adviser assigned to Ryan. “There, he will highlight President Obama’s record of slashing Medicare for current Florida seniors to fund Obamacare. He will also note that the Romney-Ryan ticket is the only one with a bipartisan plan to strengthen Medicare for today and tomorrow’s seniors.”

The brief email included an excerpt from an interview that Romney and Ryan had given to 60 Minutes. Said Ryan:

My mom is a Medicare senior in Florida. Our point is we need to preserve their benefits, because government made promises to them that they’ve organized their retirements around. In order to make sure we can do that, you must reform it for those of us who are younger. And we think these reforms are good reforms. They have bipartisan origins. They started from the Clinton commission in the late ’90s.

The email was notable for two reasons. First, it signaled that the Republican ticket, contrary to early speculation, planned to go on offense on the issue that was supposed to bury them. Second, it demonstrated the challenges they would face in making their case through a skeptical media. Ryan’s words about his mother, meant to reassure seniors, were edited out of the interview that aired on television. 

Perhaps the show couldn’t spare an additional 30 seconds of its 60 minutes to include what were arguably the most important words uttered over the course of the interview—a case that demonstrates the bipartisan roots of Ryan’s “premium support” plans and his personal investment in preserving Medicare for seniors. Time constraints, you know. 

No matter, later in the week the campaign announced that Ryan would be taking his mother, Betty Douglas, to Florida with him. And Ryan wasn’t going just anywhere in Florida, he was going to The Villages, “Florida’s Friendliest Retirement Hometown.” 

Why is the Romney campaign so confident about its ability to win the argument on Medicare—or at least neutralize attacks from Democrats? For one thing, they have successfully reframed the debate. The reality, of course, is that Medicare changes are coming. It’s no longer possible for Democrats to pretend that the debate is over maintaining Medicare in its current form or reforming it. Everyone understands that changes are necessary—including Obama, who has acknowledged that Medicare will go “broke” without reform even as he’s steadfastly refused to pursue the kind of long-term structural reform required. Still, Obama included some short-term changes to Medicare in his health care overhaul, including reductions in payments to providers and cuts to funding for Medicare Advantage. 

There has been some awful reporting on Medicare and Ryan’s reforms. But pretty much every piece includes at least some mention of these Obama-care cuts, often prominently. This was the lead of a Wall Street Journal that ran Wednesday: “With Medicare now at the center of the presidential campaign, an emerging point of contention is the $716 billion reduction over 10 years in the program’s growth enacted as part of President Barack Obama’s health-care law.” So the debate, at least for political purposes, is no longer Current Medicare vs. Risky Republican Reforms; it’s now Obamacare vs. the Ryan-Romney Reforms.

 There’s another reason for the campaign’s confidence: Republicans have won such a debate before, in Florida. Marco Rubio did it two years ago. Running for the Senate, he campaigned unapologetically on many of the reforms in Paul Ryan’s Roadmap. “You have to start by defining the goal,” Rubio tells me. “We want to keep the program for those who are current beneficiaries, and we want to save it for future generations.” 

As a candidate, Rubio did this in a direct and forthright way. “Tackling the issue of the federal debt is going to require significant entitlement reforms,” he said in a debate on Fox News Sunday on March 28, 2010. “That means programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid have to be reformed if we hope to save them so that they exist for my generation. That means we are going to call upon people my age—I turn 39 in May—and people that are far from retirement to make difficult but important and necessary choices to ensure that the runaway growth in entitlement programs and federal spending does not diminish our future or bankrupt America.”

Said Rubio: “A great starting point for this conversation is the Ryan Roadmap.” He added: “I’m proud to have Representative Ryan’s endorsement in this campaign.” Rubio made clear that the reforms would not affect current seniors. “If you’re 55 years of age or older, or close enough to retirement—55 is the number that the Ryan plan uses—I think this is off the table. We’re not talking about you.”

Seven months later, one of Rubio’s two opponents, Florida governor Charlie Crist, used Rubio’s words from this interview in a television ad that was part of a relentless campaign of demagoguery. Most of Crist’s attack focused on Social Security rather than Medicare, but the arguments are similar. “Work longer, get by on less,” intoned a scary voice. “That’s the Marco Rubio retirement plan. Rubio wants to raise the Social Security retirement age. That means you’ll work harder and longer for your money.” Rubio, the ad continued, wants to “cut benefits” and “balance the budget on the backs of seniors.”

Rubio responded with a substantive refutation of the misleading claims in the ad. But he didn’t stop there. As he did almost every time he talked about entitlement reform, Rubio personalized the issue—talking about his own mother and explaining that he wouldn’t do anything that would affect the benefits she’d earned. “Anytime you can take a theoretical argument and apply it to someone, that’s better, particularly if it’s someone in your own life,” Rubio says. “The truth is it makes me care about the issue on a personal level, not just a political level. It’s important to show that. We all have someone we know on Medicare or Social Security.”

This worked for Rubio. As Crist’s demagoguery intensified, Rubio’s internal tracking polls showed him maintaining his leads among key demographic groups that he would win on Election Day. On the specific question of who would better protect Social Security, which Rubio’s pollster tested for the final two weeks of the campaign, when Crist focused on the issue to the exclusion of virtually everything else, Rubio’s position eroded only slightly—from 32 percent to 28 percent—and he still ended up higher than either of his opponents. Those same internal polls showed Rubio with 35 percent of the 65-and-older vote at the beginning of October and 34 percent at the end of the month. Over that timeframe, Rubio increased his support among voters age 18-34, from 30 percent to 45 percent. Exit polls taken on Election Day affirm this trajectory, showing Rubio ultimately won seniors with 50 percent of the vote and 18-29-year-olds (a slightly different cohort) with 36 percent of the vote.

It’s early, again, but it may be working for Romney and Ryan. The glee Democrats expressed in the immediate aftermath of the Ryan announcement has given way to a slightly more circumspect view. Matt Miller, a veteran of the Clinton White House, used his Washington Post column to urge Democrats to attack Romney and Ryan broadly, and to warn them about the fight over entitlement reform: “But if Democrats spend all their energy on Medicare—and don’t knock out the GOP ticket’s undeserved reputation for fiscal responsibility—they’ll find themselves in unexpected peril as the race heads to the fall.”

Ezra Klein, a liberal columnist at the same paper, worried that the Obama plan to elevate Ryan could “backfire more disastrously than they have ever imagined” if Ryan helps Mitt Romney get elected and then implements his reforms. 

Too much focus on Medicare for Democrats? Republicans could campaign on entitlement reform and win? A running mate who actually will affect the outcome of a presidential race? So much for conventional wisdom.