The War on Wyden For daring to work on Medicare reform with Republican Paul Ryan, the Democratic senator from Oregon is lambasted by keepers of the liberal flame.


Mitt Romney has had a tough week, Newt Gingrich a tough month, Barack Obama a tough three years. But hey, they could be Ron Wyden.

Ticked off by Washington’s failure to tackle big problems? Spare a moment for Oregon’s senior senator. Mr. Wyden is the Democrat who in December had the audacity to team up with House Republican Paul Ryan on a proposal to reform and strengthen Medicare—the entitlement that is pushing the country, and seniors, off a cliff. As bipartisan exercises go, this was big, thoughtful, promising.

It was also a complete anathema to a Democratic establishment that is ideologically opposed to change, and cynically intent on using Mediscare to beat Republicans in 2012. Mr. Wyden, as a result, is taking a beating from his own.

“Ron Wyden, Useful Idiot,” railed New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “Is Ron Wyden trying to get Mitt Romney elected?” fumed the Nation magazine. Ron Zerban, a Democrat running for Mr. Ryan’s seat, accused Mr. Wyden of giving the GOP cover and proclaimed him no longer a “Democrat.”

The White House went defcon, insisting that the plan would cause Medicare to “wither on the vine.” House Democrats hissed the plan would end “Medicare as we know it.” Most informative was the gripe of a former Senate staffer: Mr. Wyden was taking away “a key argument for Democrats that are trying to retake the House.” The nerve!

Getty ImagesSen Ron Wyden (D., Ore.)

Ugly, yes, though it washes over Mr. Wyden, who by Washington standards is one odd duck. On his voting record alone, he ranks with the best of progressives. Yet he’s spent most of his 16 Senate years working from the backbench, with Republicans, on big problems—with some 150 bipartisan bills to date.

Neither a headline-seeker nor a party rebel, he’s best described as a wonk, a workhorse, a doer. That’s kept him popular in his home state where—by contrast to the Beltway storm—the editorial boards praised his outreach to Mr. Ryan, and where seniors in recent town halls have been equally receptive.

As for this town, “you can’t have been in Washington for more than 15 minutes and not have known what was coming,” says a cheery Mr. Wyden, who agreed to an interview (and true to poindexter form, spent it talking policy). The big issues require bipartisan buy-in, he says, “and you are never going to get good policy if you don’t try.” He rejects Democratic complaints that he should have waited until after the election. “There is never really a good time to take on big, tough issues,” he says. Elections are in fact the opportunity to highlight them.

And Lord knows he’s trying. Mr. Wyden has been stressing to colleagues that this joint proposal is different from Mr. Ryan’s initial reform—which Democrats attacked—and offers plenty to reassure his party. It preserves the option for seniors to stay in government-run Medicare, makes Mr. Ryan’s “premium support” plan more generous, even adds a catastrophic benefit. Mr. Wyden notes there’d have been no plan had not Mr. Ryan agreed to “traditional Medicare remaining a permanent part of the program,” a fact, he says, that rebuts any notion of it “withering on the vine.”

The real problem, he acknowledges, is ideological opposition to any private-sector involvement—a position that frustrates the senator, since it is already reality. More than 40% of Oregon seniors already use private coverage, through Medicare Advantage or Medigap.

“This is a disconnected conversation,” he pronounces. The Wyden-Ryan bill is simply acknowledgment that any serious entitlement reform must encompass choice and markets.

That’s been clear since the 1990s, when Democrats like John Breaux and Bob Kerrey came out for premium support. Then, as now, there followed not just the attacks, but the inevitable silence—from the media and those who otherwise make a career out of noisily deploring the deficit. With entitlements the crisis they say they are, you’d have thought at least the Erskine Bowles and the Alan Simpsons would be defending Mr. Wyden for acting.

They haven’t so far, which leads to one Senate Democratic staffer’s lament: “Republicans are better at using Paul Ryan than Democrats are at using Ron Wyden. They both are nerdy policy guys who work on ideas. Republicans embrace Ryan, they get behind him. Democrats look at Ron as an outlier who makes their lives more difficult.”

The Republican challenge is not to add to the difficulty. The GOP may be tempted to take the lazy route, to use Mr. Wyden as cover—which will only feed the liberal complaints. They’d be better off doing the hard work of explaining and promoting reform itself, positioning themselves, and Mr. Wyden, as the adults in the room.

That’s been Mr. Wyden’s focus, leading by example. Asked about the White House’s comments on Wyden-Ryan, he notes only that there is great opportunity to address “big issues” with a “presidential bully pulpit.” He hopes to help. “The first folks who reach out get the most flak,” but hopefully make it “easier for others.” It’s a big hope and, at least right now in liberal-land, a lonely one.

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