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Health on the Hill: GOP Presidential Candidates Debate Health Law, Medicare: Transcript

KHN’s Mary Agnes Carey is joined by Politico Pro’s David Nather to discuss Monday’s GOP presidential debate that featured the candidates talking repeal of Obama’s health law as well as Medicare reforms proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Good Day. I’m Mary Agnes Carey and this is Health on the Hill. Seven Republican candidates participated in last night’s presidential debate, but the evening’s health care discussion was focused on attacking President Obama’s health care law instead of their own plans. Let’s take a look at this exchange between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty when CNN’s John King tried to get Pawlenty to talk about his description of the health law as “Obamneycare.”


JOHN KING, CNN: Your rival is standing right there. If it was “Obamneycare” on “Fox News Sunday,” why isn’t it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?

TIM PAWLENTY: It – President Obama is – is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He’s the one who said it’s a blueprint and that he merged the two programs. And so using the term “Obamneycare” was a reflection of the president’s comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.

JOHN KING: All right. Governor, you want to respond to that at all?

MITT ROMNEY: No, just – just to say this, which is my guess is the president is going to eat those words and wish he hasn’t — hadn’t put them out there. And I can’t wait to debate him and say, Mr. President, if, in fact, you did look at what we did in Massachusetts, why didn’t you give me a call and ask what worked and what didn’t?


MARY AGNES CAREY: And here’s former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s critique of Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan.


NEWT GINGRICH: If you’re dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can’t have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you’re doing is the right thing, you better slow down. Remember, we all got mad at Obama because he ran over us when we said ‘Don’t do it.’ Well, the Republicans ought to follow the same ground rule. If you can’t convince the American people it’s a good idea, maybe it’s not a good idea.

MARY AGNES CAREY: With me to discuss these and other moments from last night’s Republican presidential debate is David Nather of Politico Pro. Thanks for joining us, David.

DAVID NATHER: Thanks for having me.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Let’s start with the moment that showed in the clip where Tim Pawlenty had this golden opportunity to attack Mitt Romney for the health plan that he passed as governor of Massachusetts. Why didn’t Tim Pawlenty do that?

DAVID NATHER: Everybody’s just totally puzzled by that today. Politico’s Jonathan Martin had this great line about it, something like: “He had this shiny new gun, he just put it back in the holster.” So everybody’s trying to figure that out. His spokesman told one of the other news outlets that, “Well, it’s because we wanted to keep the night focused on President Obama, we weren’t trying to go after each other as much.” And there may be some truth to that, because that is kind of the course of how these debates go. The early debates are a little gentler, and especially when everyone’s running against an incumbent president, President Obama. Maybe they really were trying to keep the focus on them rather than tearing each other apart, but what usually happens as you get closer to the primaries and they need to distinguish themselves, somebody needs to try to break out of the pack, they’re going to go after each other more. So maybe that’s the moment when it really happens, it just wasn’t going to be last night.

MARY AGNES CAREY: But this is viewed by some as a weakness, right, for Mitt Romney? The health plan that he passed in Massachusetts, it won’t be a point where they could distinguish the Republican candidate from President Obama if in fact Mitt Romney got the nomination. So is this going to hurt Tim Pawlenty that he didn’t move when he could have, when he could have moved in on this?

DAVID NATHER: Yes, definitely. I mean, maybe not over the long-term, but people are going to be looking at – anybody who is voting in the Republican primaries – is going to look at it, and say, “OK, this is where we want you guys to tangle. You have this great line on the Sunday talk shows, bring it on.” And he didn’t. It just looks like he lost his nerve. It’s going to set him back for a while unless further down the road he can convince people that he’s got the courage to stick with an attack line.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Let’s go a little bit then to Medicare. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to distance himself from his earlier criticism of Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan. Did he pull it off?

DAVID NATHER: No, not really, because he was trying to say, well, yeah, actually I support the Ryan plan. But then he came right back and said, look — I think his exact words were something like, “my words were taken out of context, I’d be glad to repeat them.” And you just kind of hear all these Republican operatives slapping their foreheads. Because, what he does is he comes out and says, look, maybe we should slow down, maybe we should listen to people. If it was supposed to be distancing himself from an earlier attack, he just swung right around and got right back into it. It was very strange.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Other candidates, including Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania, said they supported the Ryan plan. Was that an important thing for them to say?

DAVID NATHER: Yes. It was important for Rick Santorum to say that. He’s trying to stake out ground as the true down-the-line conservative in the model of Paul Ryan, who is still considered a rising star within the Republican Party, despite all the controversy over the Medicare plan. So, he’s trying to hitch himself to Ryan pretty closely and say, “What Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum want to do is to make the whole Medicare program something like the Medicare prescription drug program,” which is really interesting, because Santorum has been saying he regrets voting for that. But for now, he’s trying to say, look, that was a Republican program. It worked better than we expected. This is the model for what Paul Ryan is trying to do. It makes it sound a lot less threatening and something that seniors might actually be familiar with.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Let’s look ahead. You mentioned earlier this is the first of probably a long series of debates. How will the Republican presidential debates change on health care if at all?

DAVID NATHER: You’re going to see somebody engage Mitt Romney on the mandate question in a way that we didn’t see last night. You’re going to see more that it may come from Pawlenty. It may come from one of the others if you see a breakout. It could come from Rick Perry, once he gets in. But it’s going to have to happen, because the vulnerability is sitting right there. Romney really had it kind of easy last night. And he knows he’s not going to have it that easy for the whole course of the debates.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Thanks so much for your thoughts, David Nather of Politico Pro.

DAVID NATHER: Thank you.