Not on our dime

February 08, 2004

HIS RE-ELECTION campaign budget is expected to reach $200 million, not including whatever the Republican Party spends on its own -- way more than his Democratic challenger will likely be able to muster.

Yet President Bush has chosen to spend $22.6 million in taxpayer money on what look for all the world like political advertisements and mailings to defend the new Medicare law from Democratic attacks.

Jaded as we are to incumbents using the perks of office to extend their stay, this phony public service campaign smacks of an abuse of power. That it also involves filching from a budget that is a half-trillion dollars in the red and scrimping on so many legitimate government services comes as an added poke in the eye.

And what a nice touch that the media firm booking $9.5 million worth of national television time to run the 30-second spots purchased by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also handles advertising for the Bush campaign. All in the family.

There's no dispute that advertising to help explain Medicare benefits to elderly beneficiaries is a valid, even useful, government function. Comic actor Leslie Nielsen starred in a particularly cute Medicare spot a few years ago.

But the new campaign isn't a straightforward explanation of benefits but a response to Democratic charges that Mr. Bush and the Republican Congress are about the business of dismantling the popular program.

"So, my Medicare isn't different, it's just more?" an actor inquires of an announcer who assures him that's true.

That assertion, though, is highly questionable, and could become a central issue in the presidential and congressional campaigns this year.

The legislation Mr. Bush signed last fall adds prescription drug coverage to Medicare beginning in 2006, but does so in a way that undermines financing for the program and may have a profound effect on other forms of retiree health care. It also raises premiums for upper-income beneficiaries.

What's more, it's not practical to try to explain the new program to Medicare beneficiaries nearly two years before it takes effect. All they're getting are generalities; much more specific information will have to be provided next year.

Democratic critics of the legislation frequently overstate their case, charging that Mr. Bush is trying to "privatize Medicare," which already depends on private health care providers, or warning Medicare beneficiaries they could be forced into HMOs, choosing to describe managed care plans in the narrowest and most unpopular of terms.

That's fair grist for the political debate under way in Washington and out on the campaign trail. The president is entitled to a rebuttal. But if he's going to run an expensive media barrage that the conservative National Taxpayers Union said looked like "an election-year ploy rather than a genuine public service announcement," he should dip into his own deep pockets to pay for it.

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