This last week we've seen how Washington's elites are able to suppress popular opinion, work against the public interest, and wrap it all up with a bow so that it looks like "democracy in action." It's not. What we're seeing isn't democracy, and it
December 20, 2011

This last week we've seen how Washington's elites are able to suppress popular opinion, work against the public interest, and wrap it all up with a bow so that it looks like "democracy in action." It's not. What we're seeing isn't democracy, and it isn't a free press either. It's merely another cynical ploy to rob Americans of government programs they both need and want.

The latest assault is on Medicare. The "Ryan/Wyden plan" is a perfect case study in the cynical workings of an antidemocratic machine - a machine whose cogs are lazy journalists, whose gears are selfish politicians, and whose levers are pulled by the wealthy and powerful.

I held my fire on this for a few days, to see if more details would emerge on the proposal from Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Paul Ryan, who were initially (and deliberately vague) on its specifics. That turned it into Rorschach test for observers, and where the Washington Post sees a butterfly I usually see a vampire bat.

But Malcolm Gladwell would be pleased: It turns out that the first "blink" impression of Ryan/Wyden is the right one. It's a Medicare-killing publicity stunt that undermines the financial security of the 99 percent. And if you happen to be reading this in the Nation's Capital, please note: The "lefty" position on Medicare is supported by most Republicans.

Let's not kid ourselves. Unless we act quickly and aggressively, the Machine will succeed in killing Medicare.

The Program

We've seen this software before. It's been run against Social Security, jobs, and other government services that are both popular and effective. Here's how it works:

  1. Concept: An intellectually thin but highly-funded network of corporate-funded and billionaire-backed "think" tanks draft a proposal that would eviscerate a popular government program.
  2. Rollout: Congressional Republicans act in lockstep to implement the think tank's policy by gutting something that's typically supported in overwhelming numbers by Democrats and independents - and which is often backed most registered Republican voters, too.
  3. Blowback: The backlash from aggrieved citizens comes from all across the political spectrum, but is spun by compliant media figures as a reflexive hostility to "new ideas" from "ideologues" and "extremists" on the left.
  4. Sellout: A cynical, self-serving Democrat sees an opportunity to curry favor with billionaires, corporations, and media outlets by endorsing the radical moves the Republicans have proposed.
  5. Spin: The media uses that Democrat's endorsement as proof that the corporate position is actually that of "responsible" and "moderate" politicians in both parties.

The software has a political side effect, too: The distinction between Republicans and Democrats is blurred a little more, depriving Democrats of a winnable election issue.

Think of these five steps as a computer program you can run in almost any situation. The only variables are the program that is to be killed, the Democrat that'll do the dirty work, and which media outlet will deliver the machine's message this time. Plug in those three items and the program pretty much runs itself - or, as they used to say in the tech world, it "executes."

The Execution

This time around the government program is Medicare, the Democratic hack who's willing to undermine it for selfish reasons is Ron Wyden, and the media outlet is (who else?) the Washington Post. Here's how the five steps played out this time around:

  1. Concept: Rightists in think tanks like the Heritage Foundation designed a system that dismantles Medicare, replacing it with vouchers that would provide less and less medical coverage with each passing year. The dovetails nicely with the rightwing Peterson Foundation's twenty-year jihad against so-called "entitlements," Social Security and Medicare, which have very little fiscal relationship to one another.
  2. Rollout: Congressional Republicans dutifully encoded this radical scheme into a proposal called the "Ryan Plan," after Rep. Paul Ryan, who was chosen to present this idea as if it were his own. Their voted nearly unanimously for Ryan's plan, placing their party in an extremely vulnerable position with voters (while ingratiating it to many high-dollar corporate and individual campaign donors).
  3. Blowback: The Machine media tried to claim it was not a plan to end Medicare, a radical reality inversion which had an hallucinatory effect on your correspondent. But no Orwellian inversion could conceal this plan's true nature or protect Republicans in Congress from a public backlash. That's why so many Republican representatives ran into a hailstorm during the next recess.
  4. Sellout: Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon dutifully stepped up to play the 'Democratic hack' role that's been played by so many of his colleagues, co-authoring a modified 'Ryan/Wyden plan' that was nothing more than a diluted version of Ryan's radicalism.
  5. Spin: And now - with a predictability that should be astonishing, but isn't - the Washington Post is celebrating Ryan as a shining example of true bipartisanship in action.

Make no mistake about it: This program would have a devastating effect on Medicare. (See here,, here, and for a more general overview of "premium support" programs, here.)

How would we recognize real bipartisanship? It's what you'd see if a few Republicans heeded the wishes of their own voters by crossing the aisle to oppose the Ryan plan, sincepolls show that 56% of registered Republicans are against a voucher system. But that ain't gonna happen. And if a single Republican on the Hill strays from corporatist/Republican orthodoxy, you can be they won't be the subject of a laudatory editorial in the Washington Post.

What's more, if voters are told that plans like Ryan/Wyden won't cover all the costs currently covered by Medicare, overall opposition to the idea rises to 84%. But who's going to tell them that - the Post?

Don't hold your breath.

Party Line

Call it the "Uni-Party," the alignment of corporate-funded politicians from both parties who serve a narrow elite. Corporate Washington's company paper is the Post, and its editors can usually be counted upon to toe its party line. Like the five-part plan, the Uni-Party's editorials follow a strictly preprogrammed algorithm.

It starts with Orwellian wordplay, which the Post happily provides in the title of its editorial: "Healing Medicare." (Ryan/Wyden would heal Medicare, I suppose - the same way cutting my head off would cure this headache.)

"In the maelstrom of dysfunction and partisanship better known as the 112th Congress," it begins - and let me stop right there for a second. Since when is partisanship a bad thing. One party advocates a policy, another opposes it, and voters choose. The Uni-Party hates that, so it stigmatizes it by calling it names. I call it "democracy."

"it is always surprising and gratifying when lawmakers from opposing parties manage to work together. That is particularly true when their collaboration involves an issue as politically charged and substantively complex as Medicare ..."

It's very important that cynicism be rewarded with praise and good press, as well as lavish campaign donations. Politicians can't serve the Machine if they can't get reelected, after all. The editors continue:

"Some will read the last sentence and chuckle knowingly about its seeming naivete."

Not at all. The editors aren't naive at all. They just think we are.

The rest of the proposal comes straight out of the software: "Jump-starting the conversation" is a favorite phrase, because it's code for "introducing radical conservatism into the debate." I doubt they'd praise anyone for suggesting, oh, I don't know, the confiscation of homes and property of rich bankers. Ryan/Wyden is at least that radical, but the Post probably wouldn't praise a revolutionary socialist for "jump-starting a conversation" about the economy, would it? Would they call it a "serious proposal"?

The editorial ends by slamming the White House for "stomping" on Ryan/Wyden, an act that resembles the killing of an insect, and which most Republican voters are likely to applaud. We can only add that if stomping doesn't work, the Administration can always try hitting it with a rolled-up newspaper. The Post will do nicely.

Last Rites

Some people are giving this radical scheme cover by saying we'll still have access to public-sector Medicare, as well as private plans. But that's how Medicare works today. The big difference is that, under Ryan/Widen, total expenditures would be sharply capped without any way of controlling runaway medical costs. So those costs would be shifted to seniors more and more with each passing year.

Others are pointing out that the public/private competition would resemble the "public option" under Medicare. But why is an "option" only acceptable when it undermines a public system? As a former health insurance exec myself, I know how easy it would be to game and undermine this kind of program under a fixed budget and without clearly defined benefits.

What happens next is critically important. As Nate Silver noted, the public's opinion on this topic is highly malleable. Misinformation from media outlets like the Post can affect the fate of Medicare, and the failure of Democrats to forcefully repudiate Wyden will further weaken its chances

Things aren't looking good. By presenting a united front, which they rarely do anymore, Democrats have been able to get their message across about Medicare and the Ryan Plan. But the Machine is always looking for new recruits, and it always seems to find willing Democrats. Conrad on health care, Durbin on Social Security, Wyden on Medicare ... it doesn't take more than one or two to cloud the issue and undermine a vital and popular program.

No wonder most Americans are disgusted with this Congress and don't believe it will act effectively to protect their interests. The dissatisfaction is widespread among Republicans and Democrats and is most pronounced among independents, 57 percent of whom voted for Democrats last time around.

In the long run Medicare will need saving - from the devastating impact of for-profit medicine on our health economy (and on our health). That will take aggressive cost control measures. Those measures could include new provider reimbursement plans, along with a highly robust public option that restricts private-sector gamesmanship. But first Medicare has to be protected from crazy schemes and stealth attacks like the Ryan/Widen plan.

If politicians and the public don't strike back hard against scams like "Wyden/Ryan," make no mistake about it: Medicare will die, and the Machine will begin locking onto its next target.

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