In an act of political jujitsu, a key Republican campaign committee began airing a 30-second spot on area cable channels this week accusing Representative Lois Capps of working to dismantle Medicare.
Launched a mere 497 days before next year’s general election, the spot is made and financed by the National Republican Congressional Committee and portrays the Santa Barbara Democrat’s support of President Barack Obama’s health-reform legislation as a bid to “decimate” the government’s popular medical-care program for seniors.
The spot claims that Capps backed “the most extreme plan” for reforming the financially impaired Medicare system, a charge that her reelection campaign spokesperson said “grossly distorts” her record of protecting the program.
In timing and in content, the attack by the political arm of the GOP’s House majority reflects two basic goals: to make Democrats pay a price for backing the president’s Affordable Care Act overhaul of health care and to contain damage stemming from the Republican’s own plan to head off Medicare’s insolvency by privatizing services now financed by the government. Surveys show that legislation, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, is widely unpopular.
The GOP has run similar ads against other incumbent House Democrats, both in Illinois and New York, and the Washington Post has challenged as “misleading” some key claims made in the spots:
For example, the toughest charge — that Capps wants to “decimate Medicare” — is attributed to “the media” but actually comes from a single source, an editorial in the conservative Investor’s Business Daily. An allegation that Capps’s votes would result in a Medicare benefit cut of 17 percent is drawn from a report by the system’s trustees, who estimated that is the reduction needed to ensure fiscal stability in the hospital portion of the program, absent a tax increase, over several decades. The ad correctly states that health-care reform cut Medicare by $500 billion, but Capps and other Democrats argue that other elements of the plan — to contain costs and increase revenues — will make up the difference.
As a political matter, however, there are at least three key factors of the Republican air attack that will be significant in shaping the political landscape for the 2012 national elections:
• Redistricting: Capps has repeatedly won reelection in the 23rd Congressional District, which provides Democrats a huge advantage over Republicans in voter registration. However, a draft plan of her newly reapportioned district offers her only a narrow partisan edge (Capitol Letters, June 14), and the GOP is eyeing it as a possible pick-up seat in seeking to maintain or increase their House majority.
• The Ryan Plan: Rep. Ryan’s proposed restructuring of Medicare, part of a broader move to slash the federal debt, calls for replacing direct government payments for many health-care services with a voucher-type plan, which would take effect for future beneficiaries. Passed on a straight partisan vote in April, the Ryan plan is disliked by voters of both parties, polls show, so Republican strategists are moving early to inoculate their candidates by essentially attacking from the left, accusing their rivals of being the ones endangering Medicare, at a time when Democrats see the issue as key to nationalizing the 2012 Congressional races in their bid to recapture control of the House.
• Obamacare: The sweeping Republican victory in last year’s midterm election resulted, in large part, from attacking Democrats for supporting Obama’s Affordable Care Act. As the party’s leading presidential hopefuls make repeal of the legislation a centerpiece of their campaigns, GOP strategists believe that bashing Democrats for greatly expanding the government’s role in health care will again win support among crucial independent voters.
As a practical matter, the amount of money the Republican campaign committee will put behind its attack on Capps is likely very small. Cable advertising is far cheaper to run than that on broadcast network affiliates, and reliable sources estimate the GOP buy in the low five figures; even at that, however, a fundraising appeal that appears at the end of the spot could make it pay for itself.
But the political stakes of the issues the ad raises are larger: Firing an early shot at Capps at a time when she has not yet geared up for reelection (and the GOP doesn’t even have a candidate) is a guerrilla tactic that seeks to put the incumbent on the defensive early, in what has long been a safe Democratic district, and signals a broader, aggressive strategy by Republicans to engage on what is expected to be the most important domestic issue of 2012.