Democrats have become pretty good over the years at adapting, which is to say surrendering to, the right’s narratives. In the 1990s, Clinton (him, not her) famously declared “the era of big government is over.” Today’s Democrats have embraced the right’s austerity fetish, obsessed with government debt while seeming oblivious to the consumer debt that continues to thwart economic growth.
Regular readers of this column (all 11 of you) are familiar with the complaint that when Democrats, for the sake of winning an election, accept and even echo the right’s ideas, they wittingly or not help move the political center further to the right, which means they have to run even further to the right in the next election.
So it is amusing, and maybe even hopeful, to watch Republicans of late ardently reinforcing the leftist principle that government has a crucial role to play in providing health care to the public.
Since Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, and the accompanying heightened attention to Medicare in the presidential race, Republicans are speaking more reverently, enthusiastically and frequently about the vital importance of an entitlement program than at perhaps any time since Medicare was created in 1965.
Yes, they eventually want to privatize it. Under the infamous Ryan plan, by the time everybody under 55 is eligible, Medicare would be replaced by a voucher system, and people would spend their vouchers (and then some) on private insurance. Because the private insurance industry has shown itself to be so capable of providing health coverage to everyone in such a satisfactory manner so far.
But that’s not the argument they’re making, at least not now. They’re not waxing about how wonderful it will be when the private sector takes command of Medicare (or whatever’s left of it that they would still call “Medicare”).
Instead, the Romney-Ryan campaign, Republican candidates down-ticket and the virtual entirety of the right-wing media echo chamber up to and including Hannity & Co. have spent the Ryan roll-out promising they absolutely positively will restore $716 billion that Obama saves — or “cuts,” according to Republicans — from Medicare over 10 years. Republicans are promising that they will protect the Democratic Party’s most sacred program — a program that, if Republican true believers had their way, wouldn’t even exist.
Like Democrats vowing to cut business taxes, the right is vowing to protect government-run health care, for the sake of winning an election.
Will it work? To paraphrase an old line, if voters are given a choice between a real Medicare protector and a fake Medicare protector, they’ll go for the real Medicare protector.
In Nevada, that could help Democrat Shelley Berkley’s challenge to unseat appointed Sen. Dean Heller. Berkley’s campaign has focused on Heller’s two votes for Ryan’s initial Medicare privatization plan. Now that Romney and Ryan have elevated Medicare to the forefront of the presidential race, Obama is already defending Medicare and attacking the Republican plans to end it as we know it more aggressively and sharply than Berkley ever could. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Ryan’s selection of Romney was effectively an in-kind contribution to Berkley.
Over the longer term, meantime, the Republicans’ newfound adoration for single-payer health care (which is what Medicare is) could do the same thing that Democrats have been doing for years by endorsing tax cuts, smaller government and other GOP policy staples: move the needle of public opinion away from their own core principles and toward those of the opposition.
The right’s election-year love affair with Medicare not only complicates their plan to eliminate it through privatization. Republican pro-entitlement rhetoric may also help soften up public attitudes toward reforms that were left undone under Obamacare, starting with the public option (there’s one in Ryan’s latest Medicare privatization plan), and eventually up to and including Medicare for all.
Of course, any hope of that hinges on the ability of Democrats to expose Ryan’s privatization plan for the piffle it is. Medicare administrative costs are a fraction of the costs in the private health-insurance industry, and any projection that assumes the private sector will deliver coverage more efficiently is based on rank ideology. Moreover, Medicare exists to provide health care. Private insurance companies exist to make as much money as possible. If Medicare were privatized, the companies would use their lobbying clout in Washington to dictate rules that would allow the companies to cherry-pick the healthiest, wealthiest geezers, and leave everyone else to a severely deteriorated and underfunded public system.
Obama and the Democrats should demolish Ryan’s Medicare plan with facts, because it will help them retain the White House and make gains in Congress. Democrats should also demolish Ryan’s plan with relish, because doing so could mark a major milestone in the nation’s stumbling but inevitable march toward Medicare for all.
HUGH JACKSON blogs at The Las Vegas Gleaner (www.lasvegasgleaner.com) and contributes to KSNV Channel 3.