November 21, 2003, 11:24 a.m.
A Senior Moment
The GOP goes for a poisoned pill.
Rep. Mike Pence, the second-term Indiana Republican who is heroically leading a group of conservatives in the House against the $400 billion Medicare prescription-drug bill, notes that it was exactly ten years ago this week that the Hillary health-care plan was revealed to the world in all its splendor and glory. When it was first unveiled, Hillarycare was widely hailed as the silver bullet to solve all our health-care-system woes. The plan was quickly endorsed by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
Six months later the Clinton health plan was the butt of jokes on late-night talk show as it lay in political tatters after being universally rejected by voters. Voters turned down the socialized-medicine scheme because of its complexity, high cost, and over-reliance on big government.
Now we have Republicans on the verge of repeating this fiasco, as they offer a prescription-drug-benefit plan that is complex, costly, reliant on big government, and enthusiastically supported by the AARP. What's wrong
with this picture?
The policy deficiencies of the prescription-drug bill are by now well documented. The plan will dump roughly $2 trillion in added unfunded entitlement liabilities into the laps of our children and grandchildren, on top of the $21 trillion in unfunded debt already baked in the cake. As Rep. Pence stated on the House floor a few days ago, "Our children will never forgive us for this act of financial malpractice."
The plan could cause as many as four million seniors to lose their private-employer drug coverage and be thrust unwillingly into a Medicare program that offers worse benefits than they already have. This, of course, is precisely why corporate America has so energetically embraced the plan and is spending millions of dollars in advertisements to sell the public on its virtues. This plan could erase billions of dollars in liabilities from the balance sheets of Fortune 500 companies and shift them onto the books of Uncle Sam. There are no real cost-containment features to the bill, and as Rep. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania says, "almost no one in Congress really believes this plan has any chance of holding costs to anywhere near $400 billion."
None of these fiscal realities seems to matter much to the White House or the congressional Republican leadership, which at this moment are dangling pork-barrel goodies in front of the noses of conservative health-care skeptics in the House in order to buy their acquiescence. Their reservations do not matter, because Republican political strategists are convinced that this bill will earn Bush the gratitude of senior-citizen voters, who will flock into the Republican column in November 2004.
This is a potentially tragic political miscalculation on the part of the GOP deep thinkers. In fact, the Medicare prescription-drug bill could have just the opposite electoral effect: It could easily antagonize enough seniors to bring an end to the Republican majority in 2004.
As evidence of the political unpopularity of the drug bill, consider the poll results released this week by the Club for Growth. The poll of 800 seniors finds that retirees' support for the bill transforms into hostility when those over the age of 65 are told the full details of what this bill would actually provide. For example, when seniors are told that as many as one in three of them "may lose" his private drug coverage, 71 percent say they disapprove of the bill. When seniors are told that they will have to pay premiums of roughly $500 to $600 a year, 72 percent say they oppose the bill.
As the researchers at Basswood Research, which conducted the poll, conclude: "The more seniors learn about the prescription drug bill, the less they like it." Only 19 percent of seniors support the bill when they are informed of the full costs and the full risks. Republicans are especially vulnerable to retribution by seniors if employers accelerate the trend, already in motion, of firms' discontinuing the prescription-drug packages in their health-care plans. As the poll finds that 81 percent of seniors with private coverage are satisfied with their current plan, these seniors could end up as livid as late arrivers at the weekly church bingo game who can't find a parking space.
The prescription-drug bill is based on a faulty premise: that seniors want to swallow the pill that the Republicans are offering. That is perhaps the biggest myth in American politics today. It's a myth that could create a Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House in 2004.
On the other hand, these poll results provide kernels of good news. If Republicans come to their senses and vote down this colossally expensive new entitlement program and replace it with a scaled-back plan that just gives benefits to low-income seniors without existing coverage, they will not only be saving their children a king's ransom, but saving their own political hides. And we know that this latter concern trumps every other consideration for our elected officials in Washington — or we wouldn't be having this debate at all.
— Stephen Moore is president of the Club for Growth