If any House Republican had a ready-made excuse to vote against Paul Ryan’s budget-slashing plan, it would be Allen West, the blunt-spoken freshman with a special talent for enraging Democrats.
The retired Army colonel, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a crowd-pleasing Tea Party favorite in his South Florida district, and one of two black congressmen belonging to the GOP.
That’s in part why Democrats have made him a prime target in 2012, viewing the West seat as just the sort they can pick off with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.
But West voted to turn Medicare into a voucher program and doggedly defends that vote, saying the program urgently needs an overhaul in light of the country’s $14-trillion debt. Little wonder that at a recent town hall in Ft. Lauderdale he was repeatedly interrupted by protesters, including a liberal host for now-defunct Air America.
“I will not be intimidated,” West told the crowd, which erupted into applause. And in an interview with The Daily Beast, he dismissed the heckling as “Astroturf,” political shorthand for manufactured outrage.
“I come from a background of being shot at and almost blown up,” he said. “So it’s not going to bother me if you want to yell at me or use expletives or keep on saying tax the rich, tax the rich.”
If West sticks to his position on Medicare—and there’s every indication he will—he’ll undeniably be taking a political risk. But in an unusually unsettled electoral climate, reforming entitlements could just as easily send West home as make him the face of a new political paradigm that rewards politicians for taking difficult stands, even if their job is on the line.
“The facts are on my side and that’s why I’m not concerned,” West said. On Friday, the Medicare trustees reported that the program’s trust fund will be depleted by 2024, five years earlier than expected.
“I think that you can look at the seniors in your district in the eye and say there’s no effect upon you if you’re 55 and above,” West said. “But I’m 50 years of age, and if I don’t make a change for myself, there’s not going to be a Medicare around for me. There’s not going to be a Medicare around for my children. There may not even be a country around for my children… I’m not saying you eradicate it, but you have to tweak it.”
Those “tweaks” include changing Medicare from a government-run, fee-for-service model to a program that would give seniors an allowance to buy health insurance on their own, starting in 2022. Wealthier seniors would receive less of a subsidy, while poor seniors would get more.
Seniors make up nearly 20 percent of West’s Florida turf, which stretches from West Palm Beach to Boca Raton and Ft. Lauderdale (and was carried by both Obama and John Kerry). That’s almost 50 percent above the national average and—at least in past political climates— likely to make West’s constituents fighting mad over the Ryan budget plan that House Republicans overwhelmingly supported, although some are now backing off a bit.
West argues that that the plan will not only give seniors more control over their own health care, it will drive down the overall cost by introducing competition to the insurance industry.
But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that, while Medicare is not sustainable in its current form, the Ryan plan would leave seniors paying nearly twice as much for health care—more than $12,510 a year—than they do under today’s Medicare.
That CBO estimate gave Democrats all the ammunition they needed to accuse Republicans of burdening the elderly with higher costs and even ending Medicare altogether. They are also pouring money into the suddenly-close special election in New York’s 26th Congressional district in the hopes that the race will become an early referendum on the GOP’s Medicare stance.
Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey calls the GOP’s Medicare plans “politically suicidal” and predicts Republicans will pay at the polls.
“Medicare has razor-blade sharp edges.” Markey said. “And it’s drawing political blood in New York as it is going to across this country, as the Republicans try to cut back on something that is a commitment to the seniors.”
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi warns that the Ryan budget’s changes to Medicaid will also hurt seniors, who could lose funding for nursing homes. Those elderly residents, she warned reporters recently, “are moving in with you.”
West called Pelosi’s words a sign of desperation.
“You know what I really equate the Democrats to right now?” West said. “Remember how the adults used to sound on the Charlie Brown special? That’s what they sound like.”
What effect all of this will have on Republicans generally, or West specifically, in 2012 is not clear. GOP officials in Washington admit they would rather talk about the economy and creating jobs than have a debate over Medicare and Medicaid for the next 18 months, territory that is usually ripe for Democrats.
Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, told The Daily Beast, “We’re a long way off from the election. But I think that where the electorate is right now is appreciative of the fact that we are serious about wanting to achieve spending cuts, serious about actually changing the conversation here.”
Even West acknowledges that a presidential election year in 2012 will likely draw a different type of voter than those who sent him to Washington with 54 percent of the vote over the incumbent Rep. Ron Klein, a Democrat. The district is almost guaranteed to change after Florida’s Republican-controlled redistricting alters the state’s political boundaries.
West has already drawn two Democratic opponents for 2012, businessman Patrick Murphy and the former mayor of West Palm Beach, Lois Frankel, as well as constant fire from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which accused West this week of voting to give oil companies tax breaks while cutting benefits for seniors.
“South Florida voters know those aren’t the right priorities and as long as Allen West chooses Big Oil over Medicare, seniors and middle class voters are going to choose Democrats in the next election,” said Jesse Benton, the spokesman for the DCCC.
But Sue Trombino from Boca Raton, who voted for West in 2010, believes West will “absolutely” be elected again in 2012. “With Allen West, what you see is what you get and I think people are starving for that,” she said.
Trombino called West “a man of integrity” and said that she and her 87-year-old mother will both be voting for West, even though the changes to Medicare could affect Sue, who is 54.
“There is not one thing that the government has done and put their hand in that has worked,” she said. “Why would I want somebody else telling me where I should get my health care?”
West is counting on such voters in 2012, when he says he’ll need to sell himself as a person who makes tough choices despite the risks.
At the end of my interview with West, I asked him once more if he is at all worried that his position on Medicare could jeopardize his seat.
“No,” he said.
“That’s pretty bold,” I told him.
West smiled and said, “That’s what I am.”
Patricia Murphy is a writer in Washington, D.C., where she covers Congress and politics.