That the elderly of all groups of Americans most strongly oppose President Obama on health care reform shows the success of Republican fear-mongering over supposed Medicare cuts and "death panels". And on Monday, the Washington Post did the GOP a great service in a piece titled, "On Medicare Spending, a Role Reversal." While exploring the impact of projected savings in the program that serves 46 million Americans, the Post left unchallenged the Republicans' laughable claim to be the new protectors of Medicare after decades of war against it.
Readers who stopped after the first two paragraphs could be forgiven for wrongly assuming that the party that brought you Medicare would now kill it but for the stalwart defense of the Republican Party. After the subhead declaring, "Republicans, Not Interest Groups, Fight Plans to Cut $400 Billion Over 10 Years," the Post's Lori Montgomery concluded:
After years of trying to cut Medicare spending, Republican lawmakers have emerged as champions of the program, accusing Democrats of trying to steal from the elderly to cover the cost of health reform.
It's a lonely battle. The hospital associations, AARP and other powerful interest groups that usually howl over Medicare cuts have also switched sides.
To her credit, Montgomery details the backing for Democratic-lead health insurance reform from AARP, the Federation of American Hospitals and other groups, support which comes precisely because new gains for American seniors will not result in benefit cuts under any of the proposals now on the table. The majority of the estimated in $400 billion in savings comes from reducing the overpayments private insurers under the Medicare Advantage program. As the AARP's David Sloane concluded, "We believe" that the insurance companies would "continue to deliver Medicare benefits at the same level they do now." As the Commonwealth Fund's Stuart Guterman similarly concluded in an analysis compiled by Politifact, "in no case will [Advantage patients] get less Medicare benefits than people in the rest of the program."
But nowhere in the Washington Post's article is there any mention that Republicans tried to block the creation of Medicare in the 1960's and unsuccessfully sought to gut its budget by 15% in the 1990's.
The words of Republicans past and present tell the tale. Before his later canonization by the GOP faithful, Ronald Reagan announced in 1961 that the failure to stop Medicare meant "you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free." Three years later, his future successor George H.W. Bush decried it as "socialized Medicine." Just this July, Georgia Rep. Tom Price, a one-time orthopedic surgeon and current chairman of the Republican Study Group, proclaimed:
"Going down the path of more government will only compound the problem. While the stated goal remains noble, as a physician, I can attest that nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government's intrusion into medicine through Medicare."
Throughout the 1990's, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell and their Republican colleagues continued the GOP war on Medicare. Hoping to slowly but surely undermine the program by shifting its beneficiaries to managed care and private insurance, in 1995 McConnell was among the Republican revolutionaries backing Gingrich's call to slash Medicare spending by $270 billion (14%) over seven years. As Gingrich put it then:
"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."
When President Clinton and his Democratic allies in Congress rushed to defend Medicare from the Republican onslaught, Gingrich launched a blistering assault:
"Think about a party whose last stand is to frighten 85-year-olds, and you'll understand how totally morally bankrupt the modern Democratic Party is."
Fast forward to 2009 and Gingrich's Republicans are precisely that morally bankrupt. Throughout August, GOP demagogues falsely claimed Democratic health care proposals would gut Medicare benefits. Sarah Palin and Obama negotiating partner Chuck Grassley warned about mythical government"death panels" which would "pull the plug on grandma." Amazingly, a recent poll showed that 59% of self-identified conservatives and 62% of McCain voters believe that the government should "stay out of Medicare." As for Mitch McConnell, who a decade ago wanted to take a butcher knife to Medicare, the Senate Minority Leader is using a rhetorical scalpel to slash Democrats:
"Some in Congress seem to be in such a rush to pass just any reform, rather than the right reform, that they're looking everywhere for the money to pay for it -- even if it means sticking it to seniors with cuts to Medicare."
(Earlier this month, RNC chairman Michael Steele reflected incarnate the GOP contradictions - and hypocrisy - over Medicare. He called for "no cuts to Medicare to pay for another program," only to announce just days later, "You've got to deal with those inefficiencies, absolutely.")
And so it goes. Republicans are worried not that Obama's health care reform might fail, but that it would succeed, and thus for years make Democrats the party of choice for grateful Americans. So the GOP pretends to now defend the Medicare program it has always opposed and doubtless will again in the future.
But reading the Washington Post, you'd never know.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)
UPDATE: It is worth noting, as Steve Benen does, that far from protecting Medicare, Republicans in Congress are actively intent on "privatizing it out of existence." As he points out, "this year, 137 Republicans -- more than three-fourths of the caucus -- voted in support of a GOP alternative budget plan that called for 'replacing the traditional Medicare program with subsidies to help retirees enroll in private health care plans.'" And in a jaw-dropping Wall Street Journal op-ed just three weeks ago, Sarah Palin called for fundamentally altering the program by "providing Medicare recipients with vouchers that allow them to purchase their own coverage."