Are Americans ready for a real debate on the size of government?

David Becker/AP

Americans are not ready to debate the size and scope of the federal government, pollsters say, despite the presidential campaign’s sudden detour toward issues such as the future of Medicare, Social Security, and the country’s deficit.

“The average citizen would rather close down a lot of buildings in D.C. than give up Medicare,” says Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Everyone has a family member in retirement that’s on Medicare or Social Security.”

And yet here we are, roughly three months away from the election, debating the finer points of Medicare versus the Affordable Care Act; the fate of Social Security; and the way these entitlement programs and their costly trajectories contribute to the growing deficit.

“Well, in theory, people want to see something done,” says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. “But, when you get down to it, there’s a lot of resistance to sacrifice.”

Sacrifice isn’t typically a buzzword trotted out on the campaign trail to give voters a sense of optimism about the country’s future. Yet, the Republicans prompted this shift in topic by adding Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to the ticket as the vice presidential nominee. He’s practically Mr. Entitlement and Deficit Man.

As the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan passed two controversial budgets through the chamber that Democrats decry for the way they would dismantle the social safety net, slash tax rates, and turn Medicare into a voucher program after the year 2023. This would limit the federal government’s spending on health care, but critics worry it could also shift those extra, growing costs onto seniors.

The Romney-Ryan ticket casts Ryan’s proposed budget in a different light, as a means of changing the nature of entitlement programs in order to save them: a fate that will befall them if, as Ryan has warned in the past, the country cannot tame its debt, and it falls into a “European-style debt crisis.”

Adding Ryan to the ticket was a risky strategy for the Republicans, even if it successfully moved the conversation away from Romney’s taxes or his tenure at private-equity firm Bain Capital. Now, it means that the Republicans must carefully frame the way they discuss Ryan’s pet issues if they want to win the election — particularly among older voters, a group that tends to vote more along GOP party lines.

That’s a take that the Romney-Ryan camp tries in its first joint Medicare television ad, released online on Tuesday. In the commercial, a voiceover makes the point that the Republican plan is to protect Medicare benefits for current seniors, while it “strengthens the plan for the next generation.” The ad also tries to cast the Affordable Care Act as a plan that siphons off money from Medicare.

It’s also OK, for instance, to talk about changing health care benefits in order to save or preserve them. A majority of people polled by the Pew Research Center in 2010 said they would be open to raising the age of eligibility for Social Security, or raising the contribution cap for wealthy people. Concern about the deficit has also been increasing, Kohut says, from 53 percent of people citing it as a top priority in January 2007 to 69 percent in January 2012.

Still, there’s little consensus on the best ways to tackle these issues. Or, as Kohut writes in a report from June 2012: “The bottom line appears to be that if the deficit and related entitlement programs are to be addressed, it may well have to be in spite of public opinion, not in response to it.”

And that desire to keep the programs as is works in the Democrats’ favor.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee already was using the Ryan budget as a way to vilify GOP candidates in close congressional races. Now, they’re thrilled that they can use it to tie the Romney ticket to Congress, an institution with an approval rating of just 10 percent. For them, the trick will be to keep up their mantra that the Romney-Ryan ticket will kill Medicare without appearing too eager to protect the government as is.

The Democrats have the polling on their side. Roughly 70 percent of respondents in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s February 2012 poll, and 71 percent of  its independents, said that Medicare should be left alone. Republicans expressed a greater openness to change, with 39 percent saying they would be open to shifting Medicare to a voucher system.

“What will matter as the debate unfolds is the framing and messaging of the issue — and the argument resonating with the public more,” says Mollyann Brodie, vice president and director of Public Opinion and Media Research at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. “There’s a real bias, though, toward the status quo. These are popular programs that touch a lot of people’s lives.”

That’s a fact from outside the Beltway that may benefit the Democratic ticket. It’s hard for politicians to bring up these discussions, or build an entire presidential campaign around them, if voters just aren’t interested in change.

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