Two Nerds, One Big Idea

Republican Paul Ryan (left) and Democrat Ron Wyden ignited a political firestorm in Democratic circles by jointly proposing a Medicare reform plan with private-sector involvement.Compromise and election-year messaging are often lightning bolts streaking in opposite directions. Congressional Republicans, intent on uprooting President Obama from the White House, have felt the tension. And so has Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who teamed with House Budget Chair Paul Ryan on an improbable proposal to reform Medicare.

Congressional Republicans buckled to election pressures as they agreed to a compromise last week to extend a payroll tax cut, continue jobless benefits and block a Medicare fee cut to doctors.

But Wyden has no reason to buckle. A Democrat, he was re-elected comfortably in 2010 and remains one of Oregon's most popular political figures, in part because he is willing to work across the political aisle. Seeking bipartisan solutions on controversial issues is viewed today as the act of a political maverick in much the same way as Senators Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield opposing the Vietnam War.

The Potomac Watch column in the Wall Street Journal ran a piece describing what it called the Democratic establishment's "War on Wyden” for his Medicare collaboration with Ryan. It noted New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called Wyden a "useful idiot" to Mitt Romney's presidential election bid. House Democrats, according to WSJ, "hissed the plan would end Medicare as we know it." And a former Senate staffer complained Wyden undercut a key argument for Democrats regaining control of Congress.

Even Ryan's Democratic opponent jumped on the pig-pile. The WSJ quoted Ron Zerban as saying Wyden's co-sponsorship of a Medicare plan with Ryan gave the controversial Republican political cover. Zerban added, "Wyden is no longer a Democrat."

Not following party orthodoxy is nothing new for Wyden. Branded a young liberal when he brashly defeated sitting Congressman Bob Duncan in 1980, Wyden immediately set about building a reputation centered on job creation (a new lock at Bonneville Dam) and health care reform. The former head of Oregon's Gray Panthers knew a lot then about the strengths and weaknesses of Medicare, gathered by talking personally with hundreds of men and women covered by Medicare.

As a first-term House member who spent his Sunday afternoons in Portland visiting seniors in the hospital, Wyden is an unlikely agent to undermine Medicare. He told the WSJ that if Ryan had refused to agree to keeping Medicare intact, there would have been no joint proposal. He also kyboshed the premium support idea in Ryan's original Medicare reform proposal.

"The real problem," Wyden says, "is ideological opposition to any private-sector involvement in Medicare." It's a peculiar fixation, he adds, because 40 percent of seniors in Oregon already supplement Medicare with some form of private coverage, such as Medicare Advantage and Medigap.

The Wyden-Ryan bill acknowledges any serious Medicare reform must encompass choice and markets, Wyden explains.

Meanwhile, Republicans are using Wyden for political cover, while some Democrats are using him as cannon fodder. One Senate staffer told Potomac Watch both sides would be better off walking in the shadow of two nerdy policy wonks who have started a critical conversation about a federal program careening toward crisis.

Wyden takes the brickbats in stride. He sees the 2012 president election as an opportunity to bring forward a more truthful public debate about entitlement reform. "The first folks to reach out get the most flak," Wyden told the WSJ. "Hopefully that will make it easier for others."

He has been down this road before.