Campaigning in New Hampshire last month, Jeb Bush said he wants to “phase out” traditional Medicare to build a more efficient, market-based system focused on patients. Democrats pounced immediately. DNC press secretary Holly Shulman claimed that under a Bush presidency seniors would lack the benefits they rely on.
Tevi Troy, writing in the Wall Street Journal, reminds us that the Democrats have been engaging in this sort of Mediscare for decades. The results have been mixed.
When Jimmy Carter tried it against Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Gipper shot him down with his “there you go again” response. Bill Clinton had better success in 1996 when he ran what William Safire called a “shamelessly demagogic campaign to frighten older Americans into thinking that deficit reduction might soon leave them destitute in the snow, and to bamboozle them with pie in the medical sky.”
More recently, the Dems vilified Paul Ryan for his Medicare-premium support plan which, says Troy, would make Medicare spending more manageable and predictable by having the government subsidize seniors’ insurance premiums. Ryan’s proposal had been developed by Democratic Senator John Breaux in 1999 and was backed by former Clinton Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin. Yet Democrats ran an ad in which a Ryan-lookalike pushed a granny off a cliff.
Will Mediscare work for the Dems this time around? It’s too early to say.
It’s clear, though, that the real Mediscare stems from the parlous financial condition of the program going forward. Troy points out:
The recently released 2015 Medicare Trustees Report shows that Medicare’s 75-year unfunded liability is $28 trillion, and that the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund faces insolvency by 2030. Even President Obama has acknowledged in the past that “If you look at the numbers, then Medicare in particular will run out of money, and we will not be able to sustain that program no matter how much taxes go up.
Moreover, Obama himself cut Medicare spending to help pay for the Affordable Care Act. In theory, this should make it difficult for Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Joe Biden — all of whom fully backed Obamacare — persuasively to slap the anti-Medicare tag on the GOP presidential nominee.
Perhaps this lowers the risk of speaking candidly and boldly about Medicare. But it may also increase the reward for not doing so, since that approach would leave the Democrat’s nominee stranded.
Each Republican presidential candidate will have to decide how “Mediscared” to behave. Troy urges courage. He contends that “like the Medicare trust fund, Mediscare itself is running out of time.”
But will its time run out this cycle, when we’re still a decade or so away from the day of reckoning? We’ll see.