A lesson learned the hard way after weeks and weeks of anti-Bain attacks: If you’re not playing offense, you’re playing defense. And Mitt can’t afford to play defense on an issue as toxic as Medicare. As Rick Wilson put it, “The more we’re up in their grill, the less they can lie and demagogue.”

Looks like this will be part of a sustained, and welcome, push to neutralize the Democrats’ entitlements scaremongering. We don’t have to “win” this argument, exactly; a mere stalemate would demoralize the left given their eagerness to demagogue the issue. But winning would be nice. Romney, on the stump today in Ohio:

“There’s another promise he made. You know that every time you get a paycheck you see there’s a deduction there. It’s going to Medicare. It’s going into a trust account to make sure that when you retire, that there’s a health program there that will care for you. One of the things the President did which I find extraordinary, something he never mentioned when he was running for office. You see, when he ran for office, he said he’d protect Medicare. But did you know that he’s taken $716 billion out of the Medicare trust fund. He’s raided that trust fund. And you know what he did with it? He’s used it to pay for Obamacare, a risky, unproven federal government takeover of health care. And if I’m President of the United States, we’re putting the $716 billion back.”

Guy Benson recommends this post from Yuval Levin yesterday at the Corner arguing that the GOP should welcome a Medicare debate for precisely this reason. It’s not merely that Medicare will go bust in a few years if the Democrats’ 59-point plan to do nothing whatsoever about it is put in place. It’s that The One’s already stripped Medicare in order to fund his new pet boondoggle, which gives Republicans plenty of political cover to be aggressive on this issue — provided that they talk about it the right way. If they don’t, major backfire. Philip Klein explains:

[W]hile it’s tempting to attack Obama on this point, the danger is that it could turn the race into a finger-pointing match about who wants to cut Medicare more. This would reinforce the third-rail status of a program that’s desperately in need of an overhaul.

In 2010, back when Republicans were highlighting Obama’s Medicare cuts during the midterm elections, Ryan acknowledged, “We have to be careful about how we use our rhetoric so we don’t dig ourselves into an unsustainable fiscal path.”

The clear difference between Obama’s and Ryan’s approaches is that Obama would use the savings from Medicare cuts to pay for an entirely separate $1.7 trillion health care entitlement. Ryan, on the other hand, would use the savings to rescue Medicare and put it on a sustainable fiscal path. Obama’s law creates a new bureaucracy of 15 unelected officials to dictate how money should be spent, whereas Ryan’s proposal is aimed at giving seniors more control over those dollars.

Yeah, the greatest virtue of picking Ryan as VP is that it mainstreams the idea of entitlement reform in an unprecedented way. (The greatest risk of picking Ryan as VP is that, if Romney loses, it could scare all but the most committed fiscal conservatives in Congress away from entitlement reform for years to come.) If Republican candidates jump up and down in indignation that O would dare lay a finger on Medicare, it undermines the grand project of convincing the public that the program shouldn’t be sacrosanct. The problem with Obama’s Medicare gambit isn’t that he messed with it, it’s that he messed with it in order to make it even weaker and less solvent than it was before. It needs to be messed with; convince the public of that and you’re over the hump in convincing them that letting Romney/Ryan mess with it will make it sustainable long-term.

You know who I bet feels kind of awkward this week? This guy. Exit quotation from Ryan in his first solo interview as VP nominee: “President Obama is actually damaging Medicare for current seniors. It’s irrefutable. And that’s why I think this is a debate we want to have, and that’s a debate we’re going to win.”