WASHINGTON -- The 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, in previewing his revamped plan to balance the federal budget in 10 years, included a continuation of his party's campaign pledge to "repeal and replace Obamacare."
Among those who seemed to believe that battle had already been waged and rejected in the last election was Fox Sunday News anchor Chris Wallace. With an obvious mix of incredulity and clairvoyance, he told Ryan flat-out: "That's not going to happen."
House Budget Committee chairman with equal insistence replied: "Well, we believe it should. That's the point ... this is what budgeting is all about, Chris. It's about making tough choices to fix our country's problems. We believe that Obamacare is a program that will not work. We believe Obamacare will actually lead to hospitals and doctors and health-care providers turning people away."
Is this, then, the product of President Obama's early second-term schmooze offensive -- reaching out to Republican congressional leaders, including Ryan at a White House lunch? It hardly augurs turning the page to a fresh start from the long partisan freeze that characterized the first Obama term.
Wallace patiently reminded the losing veep candidate of the voters' judgment on the issue. "I don't have to tell you," he said, "this was a big issue in the campaign, between Romney-Ryan vs. Obama-Biden. "They think they won and they think that's one of the reasons they won."
But Ryan wouldn't accept that interpretation of the election. "I would argue against your premise that we lost this issue in the campaign," he said. "We won the senior vote. I did dozens of town hall meetings in states like Florida, explaining how these reforms are the best way to save the shrinking Medicare program, and we are confident this is the best way to go."
Ryan's analysis does not square, however, with his ticket mate's own post-election assessment. In an earlier interview with Wallace, Mitt Romney flatly laid the blame on what both of them continue to call "Obamacare."
"It's a proven political strategy," Romney said then, "which is you have a bunch of money from the government to a group and, guess what, they'll vote for you. ... The president had the power of incumbency. Obamacare was very attractive, particularly to those without health insurance. And they came out in great numbers" to vote for the president as their benefactor.
In those observations, Romney made clear he was referring not to "the senior vote" but to minority ethnic voters -- blacks, Hispanics and Asians -- who voted overwhelmingly for Obama and Biden. It was an echo of his campaign lament that "47 percent" of Americans would never vote for him because they were "dependent upon government" and believed "government has a responsibility to care for them."
In any event, blaming "Obamacare" for the defeat of the Romney-Ryan ticket seemed a contradiction to the campaign assurances of both Republican nominees that the president's health-care program was widely unpopular and that the American public was demanding its "repeal" and replacement with what Ryan now calls a "premium support" system similar to what members of Congress have.
Resuming the fight lost in the November election, Ryan told Wallace that "Medicare is going broke," and that "Obamacare" does so much further damage to it for current seniors that his reforms are essential to save it. So if Ryan has his way, it appears the country may be in for a re-run of an argument that seemingly was settled by last year's Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of Obama's chief legislative accomplishment of his first term.
With slow economic and job growth continuing to plague the country, a decision by the Republican congressional leadership to pivot back to that first-term battleground would challenge political common sense. But that in itself is a commodity that has been in pretty short supply around here these days. Its reappearance would be most welcome right now.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)