Political suicide?

    I’ll say one thing for the House Republicans: they have guts, moxie, cajones. They act with bold certitude, a trait that is endemic among true believers…although, on the touchy issue of Medicare, this trait might well be politically suicidal.Let us salute the GOP for pushing its ambitious plan to essentially privatize Medicare. It’s not often that we see a political party willingly risk a massive voter backlash. The GOP is betting, of course, that the voters will go along, that the voters are so fed up with deficits and spending that they will gladly endorse the dismantling of one of the most popular government programs. I have my doubts about that; for evidence, all we need to do is read the latest polls.As outlined last week by House conservative wunderkind Paul Ryan, the GOP would finally get its revenge on Lyndon B. Johnson and the Great Society lawmakers – 46 years is a long wait, but the GOP is very patient – by taking down Medicare as we know it. The party would basically abolish federal health care for seniors (in which the government is the insurer) and replace it with a private insurance program in which the government would provide subsidies (via vouchers) to the privatized seniors. Ryan says this overhaul would save the government a lot of money in the long run. Without getting into the weeds on policy, I’ll merely cite the skeptical reaction of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The Republicans love to quote the CBO when the CBO says stuff that Republicans love, but this is not one of those times. The CBO has already stated that, under the House GOP privatization plan, seniors “would bear a much larger share of their health care costs,” requiring that they “reduce their use of health care services, spend less on other goods and services, or save more in advance of retirement.”Which brings us to the campaign realm. Nobody in half a century has yet demonstrated that it is possible to target Medicare and reap political reward. Today’s House Republicans seem to think that it will be different for them, but there’s no evidence that the public buys the idea. Quite the contrary, in fact. In the bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal poll two months ago, 76 percent of Americans said it was unacceptable to cut Medicare in order to help balance the budget. In the same poll’s most recent findings, 69 percent said they opposed the idea of a balanced-budget amendment if it required significant cuts in Medicare.Americans, as always, are basically saying that, yes, deficits are terrible and spending needs to be curbed, but darned if they will tolerate cuts in their own favorite programs. Human nature doesn’t change. Ryan and the Republicans no doubt believe that the reforms they envision for Medicare are not “cuts” at all, but the Democrats are understandably enthused about framing the Republican plan as an historic scaleback. Those CBO quotes are golden. (Democrats are more gutless than Republicans, but they have long demonstrated their ability to use the GOP’s boldness as a foil.)Scaring seniors has long been a political tradition, and both sides have done it. Back in the mid-’90s, Democrats made gains by claiming that Newt Gingrich’s House Republicans wanted to “cut Medicare,” whereas in reality Gingrich was talking about cutting the growth of Medicare. The distinction was lost on seniors. And this past autumn, the Republicans scored big with seniors by asserting that President Obama was “raiding Medicare” in order to bring health care reform to the younger folk.Ryan and the Republicans have tried to erase the scare factor by stressing that their plan would preserve Medicare for existing seniors, that the overhaul would affect only those citizens currently under the age of 55. (Translation: “Yes, Medicare needs to be overhauled because the budget crisis is so dire, but we don’t want you old folks to get mad at us. We’ll give you a pass, so that you can vote for us in 2012!”) But sucking up to the current seniors won’t necessarily work. Seniors have a gut distaste for any plan that threatens Medicare; indeed, many want their own adult children to have the same Medicare benefits. Indeed, the landslide opposition to Medicare cuts, as shown in the aforementioned polls, strongly suggests that all age groups would be receptive to Democratic warnings about privatization. Those warnings may soon commence, once the House GOP presumably votes Yes – reportedly by the end of this week – on the Ryan budget blueprint. (Right now, some Republican lawmakers are squirming.) And even though President Obama is expected to talk up his own ideas for saving Medicare money, during today’s speech on his ’12 budget priorities, it would not be a surprise if he casts the Ryan privatization plan as too extreme (especially for centirst independent voters).All told, I’ll second the verdict rendered the other day by nonpartisan Washington analyst Charlie Cook: “From a political standpoint, Medicare reform is very dangerous territory. House Republicans are not just pushing the envelope – they are soaking it with lighter fluid and waving a match at it.”

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