MEDICARE

05.25.11

Clinton Pounds Ryan Plan

The former president says more senior citizens will die under Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal. But Howard Kurtz reports that he also has a warning for Democrats.

Bill Clinton is wading into the red-hot Medicare debate, slamming Republicans for hypocrisy but not sparing his own party.

The Third Way is back, however briefly.

At a "fiscal summit" Wednesday sponsored by the Pete Peterson Foundation, Clinton said President Obama's effort to trim Medicare spending helped cost his party the House. "The Republicans ran to the left of the Democrats last year," he said. "They excoriated us for all these savings now embedded in Congressman Ryan's budget."

Clinton threw a roundhouse right at Paul Ryan's plan, approved by the House, to turn the health care program for the elderly into a voucher system. Not only would that approach fail to cut costs, he said, "people will use less, get sicker and die quickly. Or they will be poorer because they'll have to spend so much of their money on health care."

Donning a pundit's hat, the former president said a Democratic victory Tuesday in a suburban Buffalo district that had been in GOP hands for half a century took place for one reason: "It was about Medicare."

Then came the patented Clinton pivot from a man who worked with Newt Gingrich in forcing his party to swallow welfare reform. "I'm afraid the Democrats will draw the conclusion that because Congressman Ryan's proposal is not the right one, that we shouldn't do anything. I completely disagree with that."

It was a wonky session as Clinton, questioned by PBS's Gwen Ifill, waded deep into the weeds of such issues as health care reform. He mused about scrapping the payroll tax in favor of taxing "things," what he called a "progressive VAT tax." And he couldn't resist a few plugs for his administration's economic record.

For all the talk about the dangers of red ink, Clinton flashed a yellow warning light. "In classic economic terms, this is the worst time to cut the deficit," he said. The reason: "The economy is so weak." He believes the heavy lifting should take place next year, which, of course, happens to be an election year.

Ryan took the stage moments later and defended his plan. (Would have been so much more interesting if the two men had debated!)

The Wisconsin Republican cast his approach as progressive, saying he would cut Medicare subsidies for "wealthy people" and boost them for those who are "less wealthy." he said that recipients, like federal employees, could choose among competing plans. "The power comes to the senior, not to the government bureaucracy," he said.

But critics say the elderly's purchasing power will be eroded over time. CNBC's Maria Bartiromo asked Ryan about a Congressional Budget Office study saying his plan could double out-of-pocket costs for senior citizens.

Ryan disputed this, saying: "It's comparing Medicare to a fiscal fantasy. The current system is unsustainable."