Medicare Political Battle: Are Democrats Healthcare Hypocrites?

Democrats are feasting on the GOP’s Medicare cuts one year after playing defense on their own cutbacks. Jill Lawrence on why neither side can resist pandering to seniors.

William Kouth of Omaha addressed Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) during a town hall meeting on the Republican plan to privatize Medicare, in Omaha on April 28. (Nati Harnik / AP Photo)

What if they held an election and nobody attacked anybody over Medicare? Only in our dreams.

Politicians just cannot resist temptation when it comes to scoring points off Medicare. And who can blame them? They do it because it often works. In fact, it may work again as soon as a special election May 24 in New York, where it is a central issue in a three-way contest for a House seat. And the hypocrisy in pushing cutbacks one year and denouncing them the next doesn’t seem to bother either side.

The last few years have been particularly whiplash-inducing on the Medicare front. In October 2008, a fired-up Barack Obama accused John McCain of proposing “drastic cuts” ($882 billion) in Medicare. A year later, McCain charged that Obama and his fellow Democrats were trying to make “drastic and dramatic cuts” ($500 billion) in Medicare as part of their health reform drive. Republicans took up that call in 2010, when they swept the House. We’ve now boomeranged back to 2008, as Obama and Democrats argue that a new budget plan approved by House Republicans would “end Medicare as we know it.”

To be fair, Republicans are often the ones proposing the cuts—actually savings in projected growth—and taking the pounding. “We’ve been beaten for three generations and we had one cycle of a little counterterrorism action,” says GOP pollster Bill McInturff, an expert on health policy. “Counter-terrorism” is his description of the GOP’s 2010 offensive against Medicare cuts in Obamacare.

It’s unclear exactly how much Medicare contributed to the Republicans’ House takeover and gains in the Senate. McInturff says the election turned on the broader issues of spending and the role of government, as symbolized by the stimulus package and the new health reform law, not Medicare in particular. But John Rother, executive vice president of AARP, calls Medicare “the only possible explanation” for why Republicans won voters aged 65 and over by a stunning 21-point margin last year. “The message was driven home every hour of the campaign with paid ads, that the Affordable Care Act cut $500 billion out of Medicare,” he said, referring to the Obama health reform law.

Medicare, unlike, say, farm subsidies, happens to be a political football with a large and devoted constituency.

It was a complete role reversal from past battles, several of them featuring former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who entered the presidential race on Wednesday. In 1996, he triggered months, maybe years, of semantic debate when he used the phrase “ wither on the vine” in reference to the Medicare bureaucracy—or was it Medicare itself? In 1995, one of the years the GOP was proposing cuts, he called Democrats “ morally bankrupt” for trying to “frighten 85 year olds.”

It’s counterintuitive, given the GOP’s history of proposing unpopular policies such as Medicare cuts and private Social Security accounts, but Democrats haven’t done well with older voters for a decade. Exit polls show they fought Republicans to a draw in that age group in 2006, and the last time they carried it was in 2000. George W. Bush won 52 percent of seniors in 2004, perhaps in part because he muscled through a huge expansion of Medicare—its voluntary prescription drug program. By 2008, the GOP was back to proposing cuts. McCain won 53 percent of older voters that year, to Obama’s 45 percent, in part because he was 72 and older voters identified with him.

Things got even worse in 2010, the year of the 21-point deficit. Democrats won only 38 percent of older voters, starting them off for 2012 in a deep chasm. But Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin says the budget introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan and approved by House Republicans is “a watershed event in putting the senior electorate back in play.” Rother says it’s been a turning point for AARP members, too. “We took a lot of grief” for supporting the new health care law, he says, because members were nervous about the $500 billion it cuts from Medicare. Now they’re calling to say they understand the AARP position much better.

That’s because the new law squeezes the savings from doctors, hospitals and incentives to provide better, more efficient, more coordinated care. Under the Ryan plan approved by the House, Medicare would become a voucher program and beneficiaries would pay more. Starting with people now 55 or younger, seniors would receive a subsidy to help buy private insurance. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2022, they would have to pay an extra $6,400 a year to get the same services. And what makes the overall budget plan an even tougher sell is that corporations and wealthy Americans would get tax cuts.

Not surprisingly, given the facts and the Democrats’ outpouring of ads, press releases, videos and petitions, seniors are warming up to the party. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this month, 31 percent of seniors had a positive view of the GOP—about the same as in January—while 53 percent had a negative view. Democrats, meanwhile, have moved from 32 percent to 43 percent positive.

In New York’s Republican-leaning 26th congressional district, Democrat Kathy Hochul has surged into contention with an ad attacking Republican Jane Corwin for supporting the Ryan plan. Hochul has been helped by the presence of a third candidate, Democrat-turned-Tea Partier Jack Davis, but “Blame Ryan” was the message from one Republican White House prospect this week.

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On a visit to New Hampshire, The Hill reported, Donald Trump said Corwin should be coasting to victory but instead “she's having a hard time defending that whole situation with Medicare?" He said Democrats are demagoguing the issue, but faulted Ryan for giving them the opportunity. “Too early, too soon. There was no reason for him to do it," he said.

Medicare, unlike, say, farm subsidies, happens to be a political football with a large and devoted constituency. There are a lot of seniors—21 percent of the electorate last year—and they vote. The Census reports that two-thirds of people 65 and over voted in each of the last four presidential elections and six in 10 voted in midterms from 1998 to 2006. That was far higher than any other age group in either kind of election.

After the trouncing they took last year, it would be asking a lot of Democrats to forgo the chance to campaign against the Ryan budget vote. It could help them hold the Senate next year, maybe even take back the House. And that’s the problem with these alternate-year kneecappings: They can help people win. What they don’t do is encourage them to reach the compromises needed to make sure Medicare stays with us in a form that doesn’t revive the insecurity and financial strain that led to its creation in the first place.

Jill Lawrence is an award-winning journalist who has covered every presidential election since 1988. Most recently, she was a senior correspondent and columnist for Her other positions have included national political correspondent for USA Today and national political writer at The Associated Press.