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Entitlements Debate Sets Tone for 2012

June 2, 2011 - 6:00pm

If the 2010 midterm elections were defined by the conservative revolt against a government overhaul of the way health care is delivered in the private sector, the 2012 elections could be a statement on government health-care entitlement programs -- Medicare and Medicaid.

The two programs, financed at $793 billion, constituted 23 percent of the federal budget in fiscal 2010. Add Social Security, the U.S.s other entitlement program, and you have 43 percent of last years $3.5 trillion budget.

If changes to the programs arent made, agree most economists, they threaten to take over an ever-increasing portion of the budget, as people live longer and more of the baby boomer generation enters retirement.

According to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, the number of people aged between 45 and 64 years grew by 19.5 million over the previous 10 years, a 31.5 percent increase -- easily the largest of any age group tracked by the census. The second-highest increase was in the sector of the population aged 65 years or older, swelling by 5.3 million for a 15.1 percent rise. Out of the 308.7 million citizens in the U.S., 121.7 million are 45 or older.

Entitlements are clearly the biggest driver of the $14.4 trillion national debt, but attempts at reforming the popular programs are tricky because they carry political risks. Those risks are amplified in Florida, which has the fifth-highest median age among all states with 40.7 years.

Candidates in the Florida U.S. Senate Republican primary race, which is barely off the ground and more than a year away, have already seen the importance of taking the right tack on entitlement reforms and establishing their conservative bona fides. One of the front-runners in the race, state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, was kicked off a right-wing radio program Wednesday for not answering a question on his stand on the budget offered by Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, which fundamentally alters the Medicare system in order to help cut the massive deficit.

Haridopolos opponents, former state Rep. Adam Hasner and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, quickly attacked, announcing their support for the Ryan plan.

The Ryan plan, unveiled earlier this year, has quickly become conservative orthodoxy, as it saves $6 trillion more than President Barack Obamas budget proposal over the next 10 years.

For evidence, Haridopolos need look no further than the ashes of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrichs campaign. Gingrich criticized Ryans plan on "Meet the Press," dubbing it "right-wing social engineering," shortly after announcing his candidacy for the presidency. Conservatives of all stripes denounced Gingrich, who responded by sending out a befuddling press release over the incident, and many of his potential donors canceled their appearance at a scheduled fund-raiser.

But Democrats, who received a thumping in the 2010 elections as the Republicans took over the House and barely missed taking control of the Senate, see an opportunity to attack Ryans plan because of the way it changes Medicare.

The Ryan plan would move Medicare from a guaranteed benefit for elderly citizens to a voucher program with caps on spending tied to inflation. Those changes, however, would not begin until 2022, and Republicans claim that Democratic attempts to paint their plan as ending or eliminating Medicare amount to demagoguery, as Americans aged 55 or older would not be affected. Republicans further counter that Democratic characterizations of the Ryan plan are cynical political maneuvering, since they have not offered a plan that properly takes on entitlements and reduces the debt.

Still, Democrats see a political opening in the Ryan plan, and have been buoyed by their upset win in the recent special election for New Yorks 26th Congressional District. The seat has traditionally been held by Republicans, but Democrats were aided in their victory by a rogue tea party candidate who split conservative votes.

Florida Democrats are also in high spirits after recent victories in the Tampa and Jacksonville mayoral races, but those wins were centered more on local issues than on federal entitlements.

Recent polls show Obamas approval rating making a comeback in the Sunshine State, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, whom Haridopolos, Hasner and LeMieux are attempting to unseat, has a lead on all his opponents.

The Ryan plan clearly leaves candidates in the Florida U.S. Senate Republican primary race -- and in other primaries in swing states -- in a precarious position. They must run to the right by embracing the Ryan plan, but in so doing are thought to be weakened in a general election match-up for appearing to want to cut entitlement programs.

Said one Florida GOP political consultant, "Republicans must begin showing fairly quickly -- and they can do it, because they've got right on their side -- that by embracing the Ryan plan, they are saving a national treasure."

Reach Gray Rohrer at or at (850) 727-0859.

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