Not Entitled
Ending Medicare does not mean abandoning the elderly.


Andrew C. McCarthy

There he goes again.

Peter Wehner, that is. He is trawling again for right-wing “extremists” (I am now a recidivist offender) from his perch at Compassionate Conservative Headquarters, where GOP solipsists are determined not to be outbid by the Left when it comes to using your money to advertise their virtue — which is how you end up burdening an already tapped-out Medicare program with a prescription-drug entitlement that is underfunded by more than $5 trillion. From CCHQ, we learn that, when you really think about it, George W. Bush was way more conservative than that Reagan guy. In fact, when you really, really think about it, President Reagan was actually a non-ideological pragmatist who sagely came to terms with the New Deal and the Great Society — and those who say otherwise are Birchers, or birthers, or some other benighted genus of the species Right-Wing Nut Job that we’d just as soon keep down in the basement, at least until we need them on Election Day.

Pete is exercised this time over my column from last weekend. In it, I argued that Medicare is a scam that ought to be ended, not preserved. Naturally, Pete doesn’t quarrel with my fact-based demonstration that, from the very start, Medicare was fraudulent: an unaffordable, unsustainable pyramid scheme whose proponents sought not medical insurance for the elderly but fully socialized health care managed by government bureaucrats. My sin, instead, is to engage in what Wehner takes to be a tactically disastrous dissent from Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to preserve Medicare through admirably ambitious changes in its structure. If “widely embraced,” my position would, Pete decrees, “reduce conservatism to a fringe movement.” Better, evidently, to proceed straightaway to national bankruptcy.

It is hard to decide where to begin with this critique. It gets wrong both the great and the small things, while misrepresenting the gravamen of my argument and misunderstanding my role as a commentator. To take the last part first: I am not a tactician. My role is not to devise a winning electoral strategy for Republicans, one that enables them to appear unthreatening to moderates while steering the ship ever so gently in the right direction — you know, maybe “bend the cost curve” so our great grandchildren can start living within their meager means a few decades after we’ve gone to our repose having spent all their money.

The commentator’s role, at least as I see it, is to try to figure out the correct answer to the big vexing problems of the day. Insofar as it is possible, this ought to be done irrespective of the politics. With its hold on the media and academe, the Left is disproportionately influential in shaping our politics; thus, if you allow your deliberations to be cabined by politics — that box we’re all supposed to be thinking outside of, until we actually do so — you’ll never get to the right answer. If two plus two is four, it may be fine for Pete to say, “Let’s go with six, because moderate voters really want it to be six,  and the Left, after all, says it is ten, so six is reasonable.” From my perspective, it is preferable to go with four and then try to convince people that it is four, even if that means Pete will say I’m a Cro-Magnon. To make policy based on any assumption other than four will lead us to ten and to ruin.

It is not lost on me that politics is the art of the possible or that governance necessarily entails compromise. If I were a member of Congress or one of those “political strategists” you can’t swing a dead cat in a cable news green room without hitting, I would support the Ryan plan. It has serious flaws — I bet that, precisely because he is among the few adults in the room, even Ryan thinks so. But it is a big step in the right direction. As Pete says, and I concur, it is “substantively impressive.”

The problem with tacticians is that they conflate art with destiny, seeing the “possible” as the endgame, not a way station to something better. Wehner thus fails to grasp the import of one of his Reagan stories, in which the Gipper, having been chastised by his hard-charging young Office of Management and Budget director David Stockman for being insufficiently radical, grouses about self-destructive “true-believers on the Republican right.” Reagan’s point was not that the right wing ought to get with it, accept the entitlement mentality, and enact some boondoggle such as Bush’s prescription-drug plan. It was that they needed to “take half a loaf” if half a loaf was all you could get, and — here’s the critical part — “come back for more.”

Pace Pete, I don’t think it helps to tell Ryan how wonderful he is. We want him to succeed, and that means getting him to address the flaw that will prevent his coming back for more — that will, in fact, doom whatever temporary reforms he succeeds in enacting. For all the good that he does, Ryan is trapped in the politics box, and Republicans are paralyzed by Democratic demagoguery, because they have accepted the premise that Medicare is a sacrosanct entitlement. It is shortsighted to reinforce the paralysis by telling the pols they need to heed the demagoguery.


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