Concord, N.H. -- IN the first weeks of his challenge to President Bush in New Hampshire, television commentator Patrick Buchanan pointedly sidestepped the issue of health care reform. When asked about it, he would say he had only started his campaign and needed time to formulate his position. This answer, unsurprisingly, did not start a stampede to his candidacy among those most concerned about 37 million Americans not having health insurance.
Buchanan obviously hadn't thought much about the issue and didn't assign it a high priority in his challenge to Bush. And as a true conservative, there was little chance that he would offer any approach substantially different from the president, who doesn't want to upset the insurance companies and businessmen who might have to pay for a broader plan of protection.
In urging New Hampshire voters to "send a message" to Bush that they're unhappy with the dismal state of the economy here, an obvious problem for Buchanan has been reaching out beyond his own narrow right-wing constituency, and his failure to address the health care problem is illustrative of that difficulty.
He is learning, though, that the issue can't be brushed aside. At a jam-packed meeting of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) here yesterday, Buchanan found himself in a lions' den of demanding local members. As he attempted to give them his full spiel on why he is challenging Bush, heavily weighted to foreign policy and the state of the economy, listeners three times interrupted him and demanded that he talk about health care.
Finally getting to it, Buchanan rapped two proposals advanced by Democrats, oversimplifying them in the process. He attacked "nationalized medicine" as "bureaucrats dealing with with bureaucrats at enormous expense" to the taxpayers. And he rejected the "play or pay" proposal whereby businesses would provide health insurance for employees or pay a 7 percent tax on payroll to support a federal program meeting health needs for the uninsured. It would cost, he said, an estimated "$60 billion more in taxes."
If the latter approach was adopted, he argued to a largely unsympathetic audience, and "you put that kind of hit on small businesses," already strained by federal regulation, "you could lose 12 percent to 24 percent of your small businesses . . . I can't go in that direction."
Although he has not yet formulated his answer, Buchanan went on, he is leaning toward "increasing individual choice through tax credits for folks who don't have health care, tax credits for the kind of health care that will provide health benefits where the illness is grave enough or serious enough." Even that approach, he said, would put "a giant hit on the federal deficit." So the first thing that must be done, he said, was "radically downsizing" the federal government to free up money for such needs.
Buchanan proceeded to recall earlier days when adult offspring cared for their parents in their own homes, saying "the first responsibility rests with the families," and "if they can't do it," with the community, then the town or city and only then "the federal government has got to help."
This comment led one listener to tell Buchanan he was giving the audience "nothing but pious platitudes," and that his observation was "absurd" because in this generation both heads of a household must work to make ends meet and can't care for elderly parents at home. Another listener, to applause, told Buchanan: "You do not have a health care program and you'd better admit it. . . . If it you continue this campaign, you from now on are really going to get nailed on this issue. National health care is as important an issue as we have in this country."
Buchanan admitted he didn't have a "comprehensive health national care proposal," but argued he has been a candidate only five weeks and Bush in three years in office hadn't come up with one either, with all the brainpower at his command. As for himself, he said, "I am not going . . . to going latch onto some idea that I am skeptical about and run around saying, 'my plan,' when I don't believe in it."
Buchanan probably came away from the AARP meeting with a better understanding of the salience of this issue this year. Given his rigid ideological abhorrence of what he still calls "nationalized medicine," however, it is doubtful that he can or will come up with any plan that will have much voter appeal.