The Corner

Steele Panders on Medicare

Medicare is untouchable. So, it seems, says RNC chairman Michael Steele, in a Washington Post op-ed:

Republicans want reform that should, first, do no harm, especially to our seniors. That is why Republicans support a Seniors’ Health Care Bill of Rights, which we are introducing today, to ensure that our greatest generation will receive access to quality health care. We also believe that any health-care reform should be fully paid for, but not funded on the backs of our nation’s senior citizens.

The Republican Party’s contract with seniors includes tenets that Americans, regardless of political party, should support. First, we need to protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of “health-insurance reform.” As the president frequently, and correctly, points out, Medicare will go deep into the red in less than a decade. But he and congressional Democrats are planning to raid, not aid, Medicare by cutting $500 billion from the program to fund his health-care experiment.

As Jim Geraghty notes, “The classic Bill of Rights has ten provisions; the RNC version for seniors only requires six.” Steele’s manifesto, however, is no classic: Trying to one-up Democrats on entitlement spending is unbecoming. Still, as Ramesh points out, Steele’s article appears to “have been carefully written so as not to preclude any future Republican effort to cut Medicare.”

Of course, it makes political sense for Steele to appeal to seniors disgruntled with the Democrats and their Obamacare proposals. Plus, the polls back up the RNC’s strategy: A Kaiser Family Foundation survey last week showed that 34 percent of people 65 and older — the beneficiaries of Medicare — think they would be worse off if Congress passed health-care reform, while 23 percent said they would be better off, and 34 percent said it would not make a difference.

Even so, such blatant finger-in-the-wind leadership from the RNC is disappointing. Without the ominous cloud of Obamacare, Steele’s rhetoric would sound awfully like British Conservative party leader David Cameron defending the NHS at all costs — just to win a few votes away from the Labour government. It would also be easier for party faithful to swallow Steele’s shift if he were a true believer on protecting Medicare benefits. He’s not.

Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, says Steele’s argument may bring some elderly voters under the GOP umbrella but ultimately will be a political and economic mistake, should the GOP retake the majority:

One of the most disturbing things about the current health care debate is that some Republicans are positioning themselves as defenders of Big Government Medicare and against efforts to trim the program’s costs.

Yet the taxpayer costs of Medicare are expected to more than double over the next decade (from $425 billion in 2009 to $871 billion in 2019), and the program will consume an increasing share of the nation’s economy for decades to come unless there are serious cuts and reforms. Even the Obama administration talks about “bending the cost curve” to slow the program’s growth.

Edwards also tells NRO that he thinks the Steele op-ed is “ridiculous.”

“This is a really bad position to be in. If we do get a taxpayer revolt and Republicans come surging back in 2010, they won’t have a mandate for any kind of reform if party leaders have been coming out against spending restraints,” says Edwards. “I think it’s cynical to attack the Democrats for even their limited cuts to Medicare — you don’t have to be a fiscal conservative to know that the current program is unsustainable in its current form.”

Steele’s argument also goes directly against what some up-and-coming GOP stars have been pushing in the House on Medicare reform. Last summer Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, published “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” in which he detailed his hopes for Medicare in coming years:

As the long-term fiscal burden of Medicare becomes more unsustainable, it is clear that — to fulfill the mission of Medicare — small and gradual changes to the program will not suffice. The entire methodology of the program must be converted away from a program that shelters beneficiaries from prices — and is therefore inefficient in restraining rising costs and proficient at sheltering prices from beneficiaries — into one in which Medicare beneficiaries choose the most affordable coverage that best suits their needs.

Like it or not, Steele’s pitch is already bringing in some cheers. AARP Executive Vice President John Rother says “AARP agrees with Chairman Michael Steele’s goals for reforming our health care system, and we are pleased nothing in the bills that have been proposed would bring about the scenarios the RNC is concerned about . . . We’re glad to have Chairman Steele and his colleagues voice their support for older Americans.”

Conservatives aren’t the only ones irked by Steele’s (maybe) capitulation to the Medicare crowd. The American Prospect wonders: “How did Steele’s op-ed get published?” The better question is: Was it worth it?

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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