Victory at any cost

March 21, 2004

EARLY LAST year, the White House appears to have set on a course to win enactment of a drug benefit for Medicare at any cost. Elderly voters were demanding it, and President Bush needed a major domestic accomplishment to round out a re-election resume; dominated by national security issues.

Even if the bill had flaws, GOP leaders calculated they wouldn't emerge until after the election. But just three months after the president triumphantly signed the Medicare bill into law, it threatens to be far more of a liability to him than an asset.

The administration is awash in charges of deceitful and thuggish tactics used to win approval of the bill and turn it into a political tool.

Worse, for the rest of us, is that the new program is so flawed, so enormously expensive with little assurance the money will be well spent, that the end in no way justifies the means used to create it.

If Mr. Bush and leaders of both parties could put aside their political differences, the wise course would be to put nearly all of the program on ice until it can be redesigned.

But don't bet on it. Republicans are claiming to be "shocked, shocked" that anything could be amiss, and the Democrats are having too much fun watching Mr. Bush stew in his own juices.

The most serious charge is that the administration deliberately withheld from Congress cost estimates for the Medicare changes - estimates that were one-third higher than the $395 billion that congressional analysts had projected.

This allegation is particularly damaging because Mr. Bush's credibility is already being challenged on the justification for the Iraq war. It also hurts him with his conservative base.

The cost controversy has given new life to a charge leveled months ago by Michigan Republican Rep. Nick Smith, who claimed he was both threatened and offered a bribe during an unsuccessful attempt to secure his vote for the bill.

Meanwhile, an investigation is under way of the administration's taxpayer-financed campaign to promote the new Medicare benefit in television spots featuring a consultant posing as a journalist; some stations have mistaken it for news.

This stuff is all small potatoes, though, compared with the potential damage likely to be done by the legislation itself, which is so packed with payoffs to the health care and drug industries it spells a looming disaster.

Mr. Bush ought to cut his losses - and taxpayers' - as quickly as possible: Proceed with the drug discount cards due out this spring, and shelve the rest.

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