During the health care reform debate in 2009 and 2010, Republicans repeatedly asserted that Democrats were misreading the American public. They didn’t want “socialized medicine”. Democrats pressed ahead anyhow, the Affordable Care Act was signed into law and 87 new Republicans, including many die-hard Tea Party candidates joined the House. Even today, support for the law is mixed with about half of America in favor of it and half opposed to it. My suspicion is that many of those who are opposed to it simply don’t know the key details of the law.
Thursday, House Republicans did something bold, audacious and very, very stupid. They passed the so-called Ryan budget plan for 2012, named after its author Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Chairman. His plan would essentially kill Medicare as we have come to know it, and replace it with a voucher that could be used to help buy insurance on the private market. The bill was passed with all but four Republicans voting for the bill, and all Democrats either voting against it or abstaining. In doing so, they fundamentally misread America’s concerns about Medicare. It would not surprise me if the impressive gains Republicans made in the last election were wiped out in the next. Republicans overreached not just badly, but stupidly.
Republicans acted like only the Tea Party mattered, as if Independents were not going to be a factor in the next election. They acted knowing that their vote would be symbolic, since it would not be embraced by the Senate and would be vetoed by the President. Now House Republicans have to go back to their districts and persuade both fellow Republicans and Independents to reelect them.
The most reliable voting block for Republicans are fellow Republicans, but only a minority is aligned with the Tea Party and many are quite moderate. More importantly, Republicans tend to be older than the electorate at large. Senior citizens vote disproportionately for Republicans, so they are a crucial part of their base. Senior citizens also depend on Medicare and Social Security. Many senior citizens also belong to AARP, which has come out in favor of the Affordable Care Act. While Ryan’s plan would apply only to those born after 1956, seniors now have to ask themselves: if Republicans had their way would they cut their fee for service Medicare plan in the future? The answer now is maybe. Most of them will not pay attention to the details. All they will hear is, “Republicans are trying to take away my Medicare!” They will be frightened and be much more inclined to do something unusual: vote for those who pledge to protect Medicare, like the Democrats in Congress, which at least in the House went unanimously on record as being opposed to the plan.
In short, Republicans voted to appease their extreme base, not to position themselves for a longer fight. To fundamentally change Medicare, they need a Republican House, a filibuster proof Senate and a Republican president. Right now they have one out of three and with this stupid and very unwise vote they stand a good likelihood of having zero out of three after the 2012 election.
Not all Republicans are independently wealthy, although many wish they could be. However much they might want to avoid “socialism” like Medicare, they too depend on it being there for them. My mother-in-law’s husband is a perfect example: a reliable Republican, a former greens keeper at an Arizona country club whose retirement income is basically social security and a reverse mortgage. What would his life look like if instead of an open ended Medicare program he had to depend on a health care voucher instead? The man is in his eighties and in failing health. He recently spent more than two weeks in the hospital suffering from a mysterious internal bleeding. Medicare picked up his costs. Do you think any insurance company would insure him at his age for any amount of money? I would not bet on it, but I would bet that if it were possible, whatever check he got from the government would not begin to cut it. The message to him is clear: Republicans want to destroy me financially and force my wife and me into poverty.
Perhaps the sell would have been easier if Republicans had concentrated on Medicaid reform instead. Republicans certainly don’t care about poor people, so he would have no problem cutting their benefits. And while Ryan’s plan claims it won’t affect current seniors, the fact that it changes the fundamental Medicare contract should make him nervous. The same is true with independents, like my brother in law who is about to turn sixty. He is the owner of a small business in Arizona. The recession took its toll on his business. Like his stepfather, he will largely depend on Social Security and Medicare to get by as he ages. He does not have vast sums of savings accumulated to carry him over in the event of a medical issue. He likes the fact that Republicans are small business friendly, but these actions add more uncertainty to his life, not engender the sort of murky entrepreneurial prosperity that Republicans claim. He has no incentive to vote Republican.
It turns out that Republicans, bless them, are their own worst enemies. They have given Democrats an issue to use against them relentlessly in the campaign ahead. No less than the famed pollster Charlie Cook agrees. President Obama, in the meantime, used the week to set forth his own, much more moderate vision of entitlement reform. In a powerful and well-received speech, he outlined an approach to entitlement reform that is centrist and is oriented around recommendations by chairs of his bipartisan deficit reduction commission. Rather than be extreme, his approach is mainstream. It works to reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid rather than abolish them.
To make the situation even worse for Republicans, not one potential Republican candidate for President comes close to being a moderate. Even if there were such a candidate, they could not win the nomination. Which means, as I advocated, the 2012 election will be framed as one of moderates vs. extremes, with Democrats holding the moderate card. Ably abetted by Republicans not caring about those outside of their base, Democrats should rebound nicely in the 2012 election. The House’s large Republican majority may quickly dissipate. Democrats will have a harder time retaining control of the Senate, given the 2:1 advantage Republicans have with Democrats retiring and up for reelection. Given the strong dynamics now in play due to this very stupid vote, their situation now looks much more hopeful.
House Republicans have to learn when to shut up and sit on your hands. Thursday’s vote was a case in point.