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Missing the Medicare forest for the trees

Democratic President Lyndon Johnson at a 1965 Medicare signing ceremony, along side Democratic President Harry Truman.
Democratic President Lyndon Johnson at a 1965 Medicare signing ceremony, along side Democratic President Harry Truman.Associated Press

I was reading Charles Krauthammer's column this morning, and noticed that he's adopted the Romney/Ryan talking points on Medicare -- the far-right columnist accused President Obama of "robbing Granny's health care."

My first instinct was to explain how wrong this is, but it occurred to me how disjointed the nature of the debate has become. The fight over Medicare, on a conceptual level, got off track recently and has been careening in the wrong direction ever since.

Given how critically important this is in the presidential election, let's pause for a moment to consider the bigger picture.

The Romney/Ryan argument is that Obama/Biden is cutting Medicare, hurting seniors, and undermining the financial security of the Medicare system. All week, I've been making an effort to set the record straight by pointing to the facts: Obama's savings strengthen the system; benefits for seniors have been expanded, not cut; the Republican budget plan embraced the same savings Romney/Ryan is now condemning; the GOP privatization alternative is dangerous; etc.

The facts are, to be sure, still true, and they're important. But let's ignore the trees and look at the forest.

What is Medicare? It's a massive, government-run system of socialized medicine. It's wildly popular, very successful, and one of the pillars of modern Democratic governance. This government-run system of socialized medicine was created by Democrats against the opposition of conservative Republicans, and it's Democrats who've fought to protect it for more than a half-century.

Or to summarize, the left loves Medicare and always has; the right hates Medicare and always has. For liberals, the system is a celebrated ideal; for conservatives it's an unconstitutional, big-government outrage in desperate need of privatization.

In 2012, once we get past all of the talking points and attack ads, we're left with this: Romney/Ryan wants you to believe they're the liberals. No, seriously. Think about what the Republican presidential ticket, Fox News, Krauthammer, Donald Trump, and the Republican National Committee have been saying all week: those mean, rascally Democrats cut our beloved Medicare and voters should be outraged.

In other words, the argument pushed by the most right-wing major-party ticket in a generation is that Barack Obama is a left-wing socialist who wants government-run socialized medicine and that Barack Obama is a far-right brute who wants to undermine government-run socialized medicine.

If you care about protecting the popular system of socialized medicine, the argument goes, your best bet would be to put it the hands of conservative Republicans who steadfastly oppose the very idea of a government-run system of socialized medicine.

The questions voters should ask themselves, then, are incredibly simple: putting aside literally everything else you've heard this week, why in the world would a Democratic president want to "gut" Medicare? Why would liberal members of Congress and the AARP join a Democratic president in trying to undermine the system Democrats created and celebrate?

Why would voters expect conservative Republicans to be the trusted champions of socialized medicine?

As a political matter, I understand exactly what Romney/Ryan is trying to do. As Greg Sargent explained this morning, "It's important, though, to get at the true nature of the Romney strategy here. It isn't about drawing an actual policy contrast with the Obama campaign. It's about obfuscating the actual policy differences between the two candidates over the program."

That's exactly right. The Republican plan to deal with the intense unpopularity of the Romney/Ryan plan is to simply muddy the waters -- both sides are accusing the other side of being against Medicare; the media doesn't like separating fact from fiction; and voters, even well-intentioned folks who want to know the truth, aren't quite sure what to believe. For all I know, this obfuscation strategy might actually work.

But while assorted hacks may find partisan value in falsely accusing Obama of "robbing Granny's health care," does that make any sense on a conceptual level? Since when do Republicans look at President Obama and think he's too conservative when it comes to socialized medicine?

All I'm suggesting is that a little critical thinking on the part of the electorate and the political world can go a long way.