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An election about Medicare

Thomas Nephew/Flickr

There's an awful lot wrong with Paul Ryan's congressional Republican budget plan, but there's one flaw in particular that tends to stand out: it would end the existing Medicare program, replacing it with a voucher scheme. The American mainstream tends to consider this a very bad idea.

It's also why Democrats were so pleased when Mitt Romney made Ryan his running mate -- Dems are eager to tell voters, "Don't vote for the 'Kill Medicare' ticket."

Team Romney, of course, are well aware of the problem, but have a plan to address it: muddle the waters and hope voters can't tell the difference. Democrats will say, "The Romney-Ryan plan guts Medicare"; Republicans will say, "Nuh uh, Obama's plan guts Medicare"; and the electorate (if the GOP strategy works) won't know who to believe.

Indeed, this fight got underway on Saturday morning, when Romney, in his speech introducing Ryan, said President Obama "cut Medicare funding by $700 billion." The former governor pushed a similar line last night on "60 Minutes."

Both sides claim to be helping Medicare, and both sides say their rivals are hurting Medicare. Only one is being cynically, breathtakingly dishonest, but since it's easy to get confused, let's set the record straight.

President Obama's Affordable Care Act, recognizing Medicare's long-term financing challenges, found significant savings in the program. What kind of savings? As Sahil Kapur noted, they come "largely in the form of reduced payments to hospitals, discounts on Medicaid prescription drugs, and pay cuts to private insurers under Medicare Advantage."

The savings help extend the financial health of the Medicare program -- without touching Medicare benefits -- and were endorsed by the AARP. What's more, the savings go "back into the pockets of people who need help with their medical bills," not to pay for tax cut for millionaires.

Romney now wants voters to believe these "cuts" are evidence that Obama is "gutting" Medicare. The Republican must realize he's lying -- the savings strengthen the Medicare system. Indeed, Paul Ryan's own budget plan embraces the identical savings. If Obama wants to "cut Medicare funding by $700 billion," then Romney's own running mate also wants to "cut Medicare funding by $700 billion" -- and then some.

And that leads us to the Ryan plan for Medicare.

Under the congressional Republican budget plan, which Romney has enthusiastically endorsed more than once, Medicare as it currently exists would be destroyed. In its place, there'd be a new, privatized system that would be called Medicare, but which would function very differently.

Seniors would be given a modest voucher that they would use to purchase insurance in the private market. The voucher would not keep up with the growing costs of seniors' medical care, and it'd be up the elderly and their families to somehow make up the difference, because the guaranteed benefit of the Medicare program would be gone.

The money saved by this scheme would go -- you guessed it -- to pay for tax cuts, not health care, and not debt reduction.

Romney-Ryan desperately wants to muddle the Medicare picture, assuming voters are fools. But the facts aren't that complicated, and if the public has even the slightest understanding of reality, the issue will favor President Obama enormously.