The other day I ran into a longtime Washington figure in Republican Party politics, a leading conservative who was large in setting the stage for modern campaign fundraising. I'm withholding his name only because I consider him a good friend, even if I don't always agree with his positions, something that is unusual in this era of pitched bipartisan warfare.
Before long, we got down to the inevitable discussion about the presidential race. The conversation started off equitably enough, but quickly deteriorated into raised voices that probably were the result of my uttering those four words most people hate to hear even from good friends: "I told you so." I would have prefaced them with "I hate to say," but I didn't because he knew that wasn't actually the case at all and that would be like treating his wounds with salt.
That I felt the urge to say anything at all stemmed from a conversation -- well, more like an argument -- we had several weeks earlier over the wisdom of Mitt Romney's choosing Rep. Paul Ryan as his GOP running mate. It was a mistake, I had allowed, for two reasons: He was the author of the most radical plan to stem the growth of Medicare; and because of his strict religious doctrine on contraception and abortion, he would not be an ameliorating influence with the women voters that Romney certainly needs.
The minor confrontation took place at a monthly gathering of eclectic souls from all points on the political and economic spectrums.
"What do you mean: radical?" my friend demanded as the room grew quiet. "Well, turning the program into a voucher system may not be radical to you, but it is to a large majority of those who are covered by it or are about to be and those are the people who vote," I replied, adding that it "certainly makes it politically radical."
The "I told you so" came as pollsters found that a major factor in the GOP ticket's struggle in states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia deemed critical to its election chances was indeed the concerns by older voters over Medicare. Their dislike for "Obamacare" actually has been blurred by far greater worry over what Romney/Ryan might do to alter the program. In fact, state surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post reveal that, for seniors, at least, Medicare rivals the economy as a top voting concern. They overwhelmingly want to keep the big entitlement program as it is with guaranteed benefits.
The polls show that in crucial Florida, 65 percent of all voters want no change in the way Medicare works. Among voters in the three swing states mentioned who consider Medicare extremely important, President Barack Obama holds an overall combined lead, 59 to 36. Even when voters say it is only very important, the numbers favor the president by 53 to 43.
None of this comes as a surprise to anyone paying attention, for crying out loud. No bloc has a better voting record than the elderly, who will get to a poll by hook or crook anyway possible. Democrats have been making political hay out of this issue for decades, scaring seniors with specters of health-care disaster.
Yet here in a tight race, Romney, in a nod to influential conservatives he already should have had in his hip pocket, picks the one person as a sidekick who is the boogeyman of the issue. In Florida, one of every five who voted in the last election was 65 or older, according to the pollsters.
It is true that Democrats have offered little to the compelling need to lower the costs of Medicare and, for that matter, Social Security. But they don't need to. Why mess with success?
I didn't ask my conservative friend if he still would have supported Romney had the former Massachusetts governor picked a vice-presidential candidate whose views on Medicare and some other issues were somewhat more moderate. The answer was obvious. Of course, he would have. Nor would he have stayed away from the polls, as some idly threaten.
In presidential politics these days, you can be ideologically pure or you can win.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)