Politics & Policy

Second Opinions

Republicans change their minds about prescription drugs.

During the August recess, congressional Republicans heard plenty from constituents about the prescription-drug bill — all of it bad. Liberals and the AARP have ginned up opposition to the bill as too stingy. Conservatives say it costs too much. And everyone worries that the bill will give many seniors worse coverage than they already have.

The administration has long recognized this last point, but argued that under current trends people were going to lose their drug coverage anyway. But this response never made much political sense. Put yourself in the place of a congressman. Your constituents are going to lose their drug coverage no matter what you do. Would you rather they blame their health plan, or you? Congressmen may not know much about health care, but that question they can answer.

So the probability that the bill will fall apart is going up.

The House Republican leadership has been sticking to a strategy favored by conservatives. When the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill comes back, they want the Senate to move on it first. They want the Senate to pass a bill with 51 votes — i.e., a bill that doesn’t make a single unnecessary compromise with liberals. If the Senate can’t do that, the House leaders don’t want to take up the issue. Some Republican leaders, notably RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, have been claiming that the Senate Republicans can indeed pass a bill over Ted Kennedy’s objections. But it’s not clear, at least to me, what the coalition of 51 would look like. Will Chafee and Snowe get behind a bill that Kennedy isn’t?

If the bill collapses, that doesn’t mean that Congress will do nothing about prescription drugs. There is always the option of passing a stripped-down bill that covers only seniors with particularly acute needs. Such a bill would be closer to $40 billion than $400 billion. Perhaps a few small reforms to Medicare would be thrown in. For anything larger, Republicans would come back in two years — with, they hope, a larger Senate majority.


Last week, I wrote about the Manchester Union-Leader’s editorials about Ed Gillespie, the RNC chairman. Gillespie was said to have announced that the Republican party no longer had any objection to big government. I noted that Gillespie disputed the editorials.

The author of those editorials has since contacted me to dispute both Gillespie’s account of his visit to the Union-Leader’s offices and my account of his editorials. The editorial writer says that Gillespie repeatedly said that the Republicans stand not for small government, but for a smaller government than whatever the Democrats are currently proposing. (I can testify that Republicans are making a big deal out of the second part of that formulation in defending themselves to conservatives.) The writer also says that he was not criticizing Gillespie for abandoning the fight against the Department of Education — which he recognizes is a lost cause for the foreseeable future — but rather for supporting Bush’s expansion of the federal role in education.

I won’t go through the ins and outs of the controversy about who said what, but will make four observations. First, I should have called the Union-Leader before writing my piece. (I didn’t call because of a scruple about interviewing other journalists for stories that seems, in retrospect, foolish.) My apologies. Second, the absence of direct quotes or even paraphrases in the editorial may have been difficult to avoid given the format of the conversation between Gillespie and the editors. But it leaves plenty of room for this sort of dispute. Third, if the editors realize that it is not credible to criticize the Republicans’ record on big government without making some concessions to political reality, as the editorial writer assured me, it seems to me that they ought to have said so in the editorial. (I know, however, that space constraints can make it hard to make all the necessary points.)

Fourth, and most important: I entirely agree with the editorial writer that this dispute is not really about Gillespie. It is about President Bush and the Republicans. The latest issue of National Review includes an editorial comment on the Union-Leader’s meeting with Gillespie. It concludes: “We are well aware that it’s difficult to shrink the government or even to restrain its growth, having advocated doing so without much success for 50 years. But the president could try a little harder. Will Bush attempt to pare back corporate welfare? Will he threaten to veto a Medicare bill that skimps on reform? Will he renew his campaign for personal accounts in Social Security? Will he ditch the steel tariffs? If the administration ignores the restiveness in its base — or responds merely by sending emissaries to reassure conservative leaders — that restiveness will only increase.”

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


The Latest