There were quite a few numbers being bandied about in the debate last night, but one number in particular -- $716 billion -- came up literally 11 times.
At a certain level, it shouldn't have. President Obama's Medicare savings, which extend and improve the financial health of the Medicare program, are so uncontroversial, they were included in Paul Ryan's House Republican budget plan -- which Mitt Romney enthusiastically endorsed. For the GOP to condemn the savings is to condemn their own agenda.
But this nagging detail didn't come up in Denver last night, and I suspect many Americans watching the debate, who probably haven't kept up on all of the details up until now, weren't sure what to think.
Let's set the record straight. Given Medicare's real fiscal challenges, Obama and Democrats found savings of $716 billion -- over the course of 10 years. How much of this comes from benefit cuts? Zero. Instead, the administration is reducing reimbursements and overpayments to hospitals and private insurers.
Romney said last night, "I want to take that $716 billion you've cut and put it back into Medicare." That means, in a very literal sense, spending an additional $716 billion on an entitlement program Romney intends to privatize anyway. How would Romney pay for nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars in spending? He hasn't said, but we know the plan would weaken Medicare's already-troubled financial health.
As Jonathan Cohen added, "Remember, he's promised to cap non-defense spending at 16 percent of GDP. And he's said he won't touch Social Security. If he walls off Medicare, too, that would mean even sharper cuts across the board. How sharp? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ran the numbers. If Medicare is getting that $716 billion back, he'd have to cut other programs by an average of a third by 2016 and in half by 2022.... That's simply not realistic."
And all of this, of course, is just about Medicare "cuts" that both sides agreed on up until Romney decided to use the same savings he'd already endorsed as a partisan cudgel. The larger issue for voters to keep in mind is that Romney also intends to end Medicare altogether, and replace it with a voucher scheme.
Obama got Romney to implicitly concede this point last night, but I get the sense it's been lost in the shuffle.