Despite a media narrative that House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal is being rejected by the American people, a new New York Times/CBS poll finds that by a plurality of 47 percent to 41 percent, Americans actually approve of it.
Interestingly, the Times buries the news deep into the story on its own poll:
And slightly more Americans approve than disapprove of a proposal by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin to change Medicare from a program that pays doctors and hospitals directly for treating older people to one in which the government helps such patients pay for private plans, though that support derived more from Republicans and independents. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that found 65 percent opposed Mr. Ryan’s plan, suggesting results can vary based on how the question is asked.
There's no doubt that the results vary by word choice, but looking at the questions used in both surveys demosntrates why the Washington Post phrasing generated more opposition.
The Times asked:
In order to reduce the budget deficit, it has been proposed that Medicare should be changed from a program in which the government pays doctors and hospitals for treating seniors to a program in which the government helps seniors purchase private health insurance. Would you approve or disapprove of changing Medicare in this way?
Yet the Post (PDF) asked:
I'm going to read you two statements about the future of the Medicare program. After I read both statements, please tell me which one comes closer to your own view: Medicare should remain as it is today, with a defined set of benefits for people over 65, OR Medicare should be changed so that people over 65 would receive a check or voucher from the government each year for a fixed amount they can use to shop for their own private health insurance policy.
The big difference is that the wording of the Post poll makes it sound as if current retirees would have their Medicare benefits changed, even though Ryan's proposal only applies to those 54 and younger. That is a key distinction that is likely to have skewed the numbers.
To be sure, a look at the other questions in the Times poll makes it clear that the public is less supportive to other aspects of the Ryan approach. Generally, the public supports raising taxes on higher incomes and more prefer to cut military spending than change Medicare or Social Security. Also, by a 61 percent to 29 percent margin, respondents said that they think that the benefits of Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers.
On the flip side, 55 percent say they prefer a smaller government with fewer services to a bigger government with more services. By a two-to-one margin, Americans say they would rather cut spending on programs that benefit them than see their taxes go up. Also, 57 percent say they see it as neccesary to make changes to Medicare to reduce the deficit. A narrow 48-45 plurality describes themselves as actually "willing" to reduce spending on Medicare, yet by a 52 percent to 44 percent margin, respondents said they were "not willing" to pay more taxes.
There are lots of numbers here, obviously, and they can be spun in multiple ways. But the main takeaway is that the media narrative that Ryan's entitlement reforms are a non-starter with the American people is, at the minimum, premature. We're at the early stages of a messaging war in a major debate about the nation's future path, and it's far too early to declare winners and losers. The reason why it was so important for the House GOP to embrace entitlement reforms is that we can now have an actual debate about the real stuff as opposed to constantly battling on the margins.