On Medicare, GOP gets a taste of its own medicine

Our view: Tables are turned as opposition to health care reform earns Democrats a win, but the long-term implications of leaving Medicare untouched should give pause

May 26, 2011

One political party overwhelmingly favors a dramatic change to how health care is delivered in this country. The other denounces it, and polls show the public opposes it, too. Yet proponents stick to their guns — and voters punish them for it.

A description of the 2010 mid-term elections and the effect of President Obama's health care reform initiative on Democrats in Congress? No, that's what is happening right now with the Republicans and proposed changes to Medicare.

Irony, thy name is Washington.

Make no mistake, this week's shocking Democratic victory in upstate New York's 26th district, where GOP voters hold a big majority, was driven by Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare and not by the presence of a third-party candidate.

Instead of a public "fee-for-service" insurance system, the House-backed Medicare plan would require future beneficiaries to purchase coverage through the private market. That's a reform most people perceive as an outright reduction in benefits.

Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul and her supporters made it clear the Democratic candidate wanted no part of the Ryan plan for Medicare and its vouchers. Television ads aired during the campaign showed a man in a business suit (who looked suspiciously like the House budget chairman) pushing an elderly woman from a wheelchair over a cliff.

Republicans promptly denounced these "Mediscare" tactics. But that sounded an awful lot like what Democrats said about GOP demagoguery over "death panels" last year. In both instances, the no-holds-barred criticism seemed to work out pretty well for the accusers at the polls.

Ms. Hochul's victory virtually guarantees that Democrats will make Medicare reform efforts — or more precisely, their resistance to them — a key issue in 2012. The failure of the House budget plan in the Senate, with all Democrats and a handful of mostly swing-state Republicans voting no, only underscores Democratic resolve. For the first time in a long time, progressives see a chance to play offense and score some serious political points with voters.

After all, Medicare currently benefits some 47 million elderly and disabled people. It's enormously popular and likely to get only more so as Baby Boomers age into their retirement years.

As effective as this might prove on a purely partisan level, leaving Medicare untouched in the context of deficit reduction would be disastrous, however. The program is simply too large a driver of the deficit to be ignored. The same goes for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, which the Ryan budget plan would turn into a block grant program for the states to run. A recent poll found 60 percent of voters oppose that, too.

Democrats may be thrilled to see Republicans doubling-down on their folly with pledges to stick with the Ryan proposal, but the last thing the country needs is greater polarization. Like last week's breakup of the bipartisan Gang of Six, it's a blow to hopes for any compromise over the budget and a realistic deficit-reduction strategy.

On that front, the clock is still ticking. Next week, the House is expected to vote against raising the debt ceiling, an exercise Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has labeled a political stunt. But even Democrats may be emboldened to risk debt default in August — former President Bill Clinton mused this week that such an event might not be all that bad (although a spokesman later clarified that he was speaking of the House vote, not an actual debt default).

And while Mr. Geithner may be correct and the House actions are just for the benefit of the GOP's tea party supporters, the effect of an actual debt default this summer would only put the U.S. economy at greater risk and increase the deficit. The nation stands to lose badly if the parties continue down the path of brinksmanship, a fact neither seems to appreciate at the moment.

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