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Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan is turning into a huge problem for Republicans

Paul Ryan’s budget, which would turn Medicare into a voucher system, repeal most of the Affordable Care Act, and cut billions of dollars from Medicaid, was defeated in the Senate this week.

It’s not surprising that his plan was defeated– Democrats control the Senate after all. What was surprising though is that only 5 of 47 Republicans in the Senate voted against it. Ryan’s plan for Medicare is extremely unpopular, and was the deciding issue in a special election for a House seat in New York, where Democrat Kathy Hochul won what’s usually considered a safe seat for Republicans (the district has only elected one other Democratic Congressperson in the past 50 years, and went for McCain in 2008 by 6 points).

Nate Silver at the polling and stats blog fivethirtyeight has a theory about why more Republicans aren’t challenging the plan:

One of the many problems with the Democrats’ health care overhaul, enacted last year, was that almost from the start, there were fractures within the party over what the bill ought to accomplish and how to go about it. It was no surprise that essentially every undecided voter wound up disliking a bill that initially had plurality support: Republicans opposed the bill from the beginning, while Democrats spent as much time arguing against it as for it. A swing voter would have heard much more about the bill’s faults than its virtues.

If you enforce party discipline on a vote, though, you can, by and large, avoid that problem. That does not necessarily mean that a bill will be popular: sometimes a party concludes that it’s worth taking some short-term risk for longer-term gain, and gets squarely behind a measure that voters do not love. But unity in the party can make a bill less unpopular than it would have been if there were significant internal dissent.

This would also explain why Republicans freaked out when Newt Gingrich said he opposed Ryan’s plan as “rightwing social engineering” (comments he later walked back). Many Republicans are in a bind– Ryan’s plan is ridiculously unpopular (and rightly so) but they aren’t allowed to criticize it– so the website TPM has created How To Spin Paul Ryan’s Medicare Plan: A Guide For Fence-Sitting Republicans. A sample:

When all else fails, you can always try to change the subject by accusing the Democrats of making draconian cuts to Medicare.

Republicans have taken so much heat on this issue that people like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden are asking fellow Democrats not to exploit it too much, reminding them they’re still going to have to deal with Medicare, even if Ryan’s plan isn’t the right way to fix it. Meanwhile, Republicans might try to run from the issue altogether– Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey released a budget proposal which doesn’t touch Medicare at all, but according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is “even more radical, potentially more damaging” than Ryan’s plan.

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