In 1995, Republicans came under attack from Democrats for proposing significant cuts to Medicare. Newt Gingrich denounced his opponents for attacking his party for having the political courage to touch this third rail of politics. “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.”
That was 1995. Here is the title of a Heritage Foundation blog post in 2010: “Side Effects: Obamacare Spreads the Wealth by Cutting Medicare”
This is the opening sentence: “Is Granny “disposable”? Some seniors may get that impression once Obamacare kicks in.”
Republicans used to be the party of fiscal discipline and tough choices. During the debate over Obamacare, they transformed into defenders of beleaguered senior citizens who were having money taken out of their entitlement program. In a Washington Post Op-Ed, Michael Steele wrote that Republicans must “protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of “health-insurance reform.”” Sarah Palin warned that the elderly would face “death panels.”
The language in the GOP “Pledge to America” shows the end result of this rhetoric. The pledge does not offer a single plan, idea, or even dog whistle for reforming Medicare. Minority leader Boehener was asked why his plan has no solutions for Medicare. He responded that this was intentional:
I don’t have all the solutions. But I believe that if we work with the American people, the American people will want to work with us to come to grips with these challenges that face our country.
But conservatives have been skeptical about Medicare since 1965, and they have worked for nearly half a century to come up with reforms. Yet none of these ideas make it into the pledge at all.
Some of the planned reforms are ambitious, like Rep. Paul Ryan’s roadmap. The plan would be to leave Medicare untouched for anyone over 55. Anyone under 55 would not get the same entitlement currently offered, they would instead receive a voucher that they could use to purchase health insurance.
Liberals have denounced Ryan’s roadmap and Republicans have avoided adopting it, but there are other ideas the GOP could use if it wanted to. AEI promotes a plan to bring competitive pricing to Medicare which would bring some free market dynamics into the system. Applying competitive bidding just to durable medical equipment providers would also be a means to save money. Even raising the eligibility age would achieve some savings.
So why instead, does the Pledge offer nothing? Undoubtedly the older GOP electorate has made the leadership much more cautious heading into the midterm election and they don’t want to gamble away their chance at an overwhelming victory. Republicans are now campaigning on “defending Medicare.”
An equally discouraging answer is that even the best and most thoughtful work of policy analysts stands little chance of getting adopted by the political leadership. Which begs the question, if decades of policy research won’t be adopted by political parties, what should a think tank spend its time and money doing?
The answer might be to play along with the party rhetoric, no matter where it leads. In 2010 the Heritage Foundation spent its resources arguing why Medicare’s new director favors rationing, and making maps to show where seniors will feel Medicare Advantage cuts.
Focusing on criticism while the GOP fails to adopt actual policies may not help America, but it might help Heritage’s bottom line. In 2005, Heritage’s total operating revenue was $39 million. At the end of the Bush presidency in 2008, it had climbed up to $63 million. Just one year into the Obama presidency, the total operating revenue for the end of 2009 was $71 million. (The figures for 2010 haven’t been released yet.) It is unclear whether all these donations will change the course of domestic policy, but the future seems bright in the field of colorful charts! (Heritage’s 2010 Budget Chart Book is reportedly “New and Improved.”)
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