That didn't take long. As the battle over health care reform reached a fever pitch in the fall of 2009, the Republican National Committee rolled out a "Seniors' Bill of Rights." But with the midterms safely won, the GOP has predictably turned its back on its pledge of "no cuts to Medicare to pay for another program." After all, the House GOP budget passed last week not only and massively shifts costs onto the elderly. As it turns out, the Ryan plan calls for the very same cuts to the Medicare Advantage program Republicans decried during the 2010 elections.
In November, the GOP rode a gray wave to victory, winning elderly voters by a 21 point margin. Key to the Republican triumph was the strategy of terrifying seniors about "death panels" and warnings about Democrats' slashing $500 billion from the insurance program covering 46 million elderly Americans. Despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act did not impact Medicare's core benefits and affected only the 15% of beneficiaries who enroll in higher cost private plans, Republicans ran devastating ads darkly warning of Armageddon. As the Wall Street Journal described one ad:
"Maybe Schauer's trying to hide his own vote to cut $500 billion from Medicare," said one typical television ad, this one targeting then-Rep. Mark Schauer (D., Mich.), who lost his re-election bid. "Let's save Medicare, and cut Schauer." Like others, this ad was paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But it was RNC chairman Michael Steele who put the GOP on record against Medicare cuts in the fall of 2009 with his "Seniors' Health Care Bill of Rights." Starring in his own ad, Steele proclaimed:
"Let's agree in both parties that Congress should only consider health reform proposals that protect senior citizens. For starters, no cuts to Medicare to pay for another program. Zero."
Steele's spot followed on the heels of his August 24, 2009 Washington Post op-ed similarly dedicated to producing fear and loathing among the elderly. Despite the conclusions of Politifact and the AARP that the Obama White House was not calling for benefit cuts to the basic Medicare program, Steele again portrayed the President as the grim reaper:
The Republican Party's contract with seniors includes tenets that Americans, regardless of political party, should support. First, we need to protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of "health-insurance reform." As the president frequently, and correctly, points out, Medicare will go deep into the red in less than a decade. But he and congressional Democrats are planning to raid, not aid, Medicare by cutting $500 billion from the program to fund his health-care experiment.
Steele's Bill of Rights for seniors quickly led to one of the most bizarre chapters in the midterm campaign. GOP leaders in both houses of Congress were furious with Steele and for good reason. The party that tried to kill Medicare in the 1960's and gut it in the 1990's had no intention of protecting it from the budgetary ax as soon as the campaign was over. As Politico reported at the time:
The congressional leaders were particularly miffed that Steele had in late August unveiled a seniors' "health care bill of rights" without consulting with them. The statement of health care principles, outlined in a Washington Post op-ed, began with a robust defense of Medicare that puzzled some in a party not known for its attachment to entitlements...
Steele was taken aback by the comments from Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Senate GOP conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senate GOP policy Chairman John Thune of South Dakota and grew defensive during the 10-minute discussion, according to two people in the room.
Of course, Politico's description of the GOP as "a party not known for its attachment to entitlements" is a comical understatement when it comes to the perpetual Republican war on Medicare.
18 months later, all but four House Republicans voted to slash $3 trillion from Medicare, killing the traditional insurance program through a voucher scheme that would leave American seniors paying for 70% of their health care by 2030. Left to fend for themselves with only their under-funded vouchers against a predatory private insurance market, rationing is the inevitable result.
But as Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn each explained, the Republicans' cynicism in shattering their own Seniors' Bill of Rights and GOP Pledge to America ("The new law's massive Medicare cuts will fall squarely on the backs of seniors, millions of whom will be forced off their current Medicare coverage") hardly ends there. The Ryan GOP budget includes those very same Medicare cuts the Republicans so successfully ran against:
You've seen hypocrisy in politics before. But rarely have you seen the brazen kind Republicans just showed on the House floor, when they voted for Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity."
Ryan's budget calls for repealing most of the Affordable Care Act, including both the insurance coverage expansions and creation of an independent board to help restrain Medicare costs. But it would leave in place the rest of the planned reductions in Medicare spending, at least for the next ten years. Among those cuts are $136 billion in reductions to Medicare Advantage plans.
Of course, the GOP Pledge to America and the RNC Seniors' Bill of Rights were frauds, promises meant to be broken as soon as the Republican Party regained its majority. As it turns out, back in the 1990's former House Speaker and would-be 2012 White House hopeful Newt Gingrich made a commitment on Medicare Republicans plan to keep:
"We don't want to get rid of it in round one because we don't think it's politically smart," he said. "But we believe that it's going to wither on the vine because we think [seniors] are going to leave it voluntarily."
By killing Medicare outright, Republicans are now proposing to cut that vine and ensure there will be nothing voluntary about it for what would doubtless be millions of newly impoverished seniors.
(THis piece also appears at Perrspectives.)