- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If the Democrats are counting on making a comeback in the 2012 elections by demagoguing the Republican Medicare reforms, they had better think again. The No. 1 political issue for the remainder of this year and most likely in 2012 will be the lackluster, persistently high-unemployment Obama economy, which Republicans will nail to Democrats’ hides from Maine to California.

It remains to be seen whether the House GOP’s proposal to have the government subsidize private health care plans for people who turn 65 in 2022 has long-term traction this year and next. But keeping that issue alive after it was strongly rejected in the Senate this week is problematic at best.

The Medicare plan - part of a $4 trillion budget-cutting blueprint by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin - was killed by Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans. And it isn’t coming back. A new set of proposals will be needed to fix a popular but costly entitlement program that provides medical insurance for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans but faces insolvency in 13 years.

Democrats haven’t offered any plan of their own to keep Medicare from going bankrupt. They’re betting that all they need to do is attack Republicans for attempting to kill Medicare and they will regain many of the House and Senate seats they lost in the 2010 elections. In other words, Democrats think they can regain the voters’ trust by running on an agenda that says they prevented the Republicans from reforming Medicare but have no idea how to fix it themselves, or, indeed, don’t think it needs fixing.

That posture, a few Democrats think, is not only irresponsible, but politically disastrous.

As the Senate was preparing to vote on the issue Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton warned Democrats at a conference on the government’s growing debts that they could not afford to “tippy-toe around” Medicare. He cautioned his party against thinking it can exploit the issue solely for political gain, warning, “We’ve got to deal with these things.”

But reforming Medicare to save it from bankruptcy isn’t what the Democrats are thinking about right now. Scaring elderly Americans and those who will be eligible for Medicare in the next decade or so is the name of their game.

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer is in charge of the Democrats’ issues strategy in the Senate, and he’s telling his party that the key to winning back seats is attacking the GOP for its budget plan to end Medicare as we know it.

No sooner did Democrat Kathy Hochul win a special election in a three-way race for an open House seat in New York formerly held by a Republican - largely by running against Mr. Ryan’s Medicare plan - than Mr. Schumer sent out an email touting the “power of Medicare” to defeat Republicans in future elections.

One of the chief reasons Democrats took back a GOP district on Tuesday, Mr. Schumer wrote, was that “voters of all political persuasions clearly do not want to destroy Medicare.”

This is the strategy throughout the party leadership. In the House, for example, Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland offered the party’s perfunctory political line that Medicare “needs to be on the table” but made it clear that he and fellow Democrats have no plans to offer any reforms to save it from financial collapse. “That is the same mistake that … Ryan made,” Mr. Hoyer told The Washington Post.

Notably, the GOP’s major presidential contenders have remained at arm’s length from the Ryan Medicare plan, preparing to offer plans of their own. Their strategists say privately that starting a fight over how to scale back medical benefits for the elderly is not the way to win back the White House in 2012.

In an earlier column, I said Medicare reform should have been placed on a separate track that assigned the issue to a special House and Senate task force to develop a bipartisan reform plan. That still can be done. One of the third rails in American politics can’t be dealt with in the usual budgetary process, like cutting grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Meantime, Republicans should begin escalating their firepower on the economy, clearly the Democrats’ major weakness and President Obama’s Achilles’ heel. Nearly 20 million Americans are jobless or underemployed, most small businesses are struggling, and new jobs are being created at an anemic rate that economists say will not lower 9 percent unemployment to normal levels over the next two years.

A string of economic reports paint a gloomy picture of the third year of the Obama economy: Retail sales growth slowed in April, the smallest gain since last July; $4-a-gallon gas has become a hardship for 71 percent of Americans, according to an Associated Press poll; home construction starts tumbled last month; and the Conference Board, an economic forecasting group, has lowered its index of economic indicators, its first decline since last June, saying future “economic activity may be choppy.”

Then there is Washington’s fiscal mess. Unless runaway federal spending is curbed, the nation’s public debt is racing toward an unprecedented $20 trillion before the end of this decade, further endangering our economic future.

The White House, Mr. Schumer and his fellow Democrats are irresponsibly silent about all of this.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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