Medicare's Leadership Vacuum: Democrats, Republicans Must Reach Entitlements Reform Deal

Americans are ready to buy into a deficit-reduction plan that includes cuts to Medicare and Social Security, but both Democratic and GOP politicians are playing politics rather than trying to come up with a broad proposal for entitlement reform, writes Douglas Schoen.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that even though Newt Gingrich and he are considered “political opposites,” he “couldn’t agree more” with Gingrich’s opinion that Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan is “radical” and “right wing social engineering.”

Although Gingrich now says that he made a mistake in criticizing Ryan’s plan Sunday and has apologized, Schumer signaled that the Democrats have no intention of heeding Gingrich’s request to dismiss his comments. Rather, they believe that this is a sign of a rift in the Republican Party, and say the GOP backlash that Gingrich’s comments provoked demonstrates the Party’s significant move to the right and its zealous, ideological drive to end Medicare.

These developments happened just days after the release of the annual Medicare and Social Security Trustees report, which projected that the federal entitlement programs will become insolvent sooner than anticipated. The report predicted that the Medicare trust fund will run out in 2024—five years earlier than previously expected—and the Social Security trust fund will run out by 2036.

Thus, it is clear that the issue of Medicare and entitlement reform will remain front and center, particularly as we formally reach the debt ceiling, and have the absolute last day to resolve it— August 2—approaching quickly. And it’s also clear that the issue is a political hot potato as we enter the 2012 election season.

Sadly, the news is more bad than good. The bipartisan “ Gang of Six” senators engaged in deficit talks appears to be collapsing, as Republican Tom Coburn pulled out of the talks Tuesday. A budget plan circulated last week by Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad would raise taxes by $2 trillion, which represents a larger tax increase than even the Bowles-Simpson plan proposed, and not surprisingly, received at best a lukewarm response from Democrats.

And what public opinion polling has shown is that Americans are just not willing to accept cuts absent a comprehensive plan involving shared sacrifice that reins in costs more generally.

A Marist poll released April 19 shows Americans oppose cutting Medicare and Medicaid to deal with the federal budget deficit, 80 percent to 18 percent. Likewise, a Washington Post/ABC News poll released April 20 shows that voters oppose cutting Medicare spending to reduce the national debt, 78 percent to 21 percent, and oppose cutting spending on Medicaid, 69 percent to 30 percent.

Given the choice to cut government spending on Medicare, Social Security or the military, a plurality (45 percent) would cut defense first. Meanwhile, most prefer to leave entitlement programs untouched—just 21 percent would cut Medicare and 15 percent say they would cut Social Security.

The public’s lack of support for reform is due in part to their disgust with and distrust of their political leaders in Washington. Rather than playing politics and engaging in partisan bickering, the Democrats and Republicans need to come up with a broad proposal to reform all our entitlement programs—Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—in a meaningful way. If the need for reform is recast in a positive light as a means of reining in spending, balancing the budget and restoring fiscal stability, and if the politicians show willingness to partake in the shared sacrifice that is necessary to move forward, people will support such a plan.

Indeed, voters understand that Medicare will have to undergo cuts. A majority (57 percent) think it will be necessary to make changes in the program in order to lower the federal deficit, the CBS News/NYT poll shows. And almost half (48 percent) say that if Medicare does have to be cut, they are willing to support it.

Put simply, the American people are prepared to buy into a real deficit-reduction program that incorporates entitlement reform that takes the best elements of the Democratic and Republican plans as the Gang of Six had proposed to do, and as the Bowles-Simpson plan offered as well.

A recent survey my firm conducted shows there’s close to 60 percent support for holding the line on Medicare spending. That is, a solid majority of Americans are willing to support an absolute freeze on Medicare spending over the next 10-12 years. This is encouraging. While a freeze is very different from cutting Medicare, the fact that Americans are agreeable to holding the line at 2011 spending levels is a positive indicator of their willingness to make substantial cuts in a program that is growing at least 7 to 8 percent per year.

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It is time for Congress to make the difficult decisions necessary to reach a plan to balance the budget. Americans do not want Congressman Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a program where people receive a check or voucher to shop for private health insurance, or Obama’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which would substitute an unelected body for government, and enable it to make binding recommendations to reduce Medicare spending.

Rather, people are seeking intelligent, comprehensive balanced budget reform, in which politicians make decisions that reflect the greater good. The data from my recently completed survey suggest that three-fifths of Americans are prepared to buy into a plan that has some kind of reduction to entitlements or increase in taxes as part of the shared sacrifice necessary to achieve a balanced budget program.

The only thing that is missing is leadership. It remains to be seen whether a majority of the political class are ultimately prepared to do what the American people are now themselves willing to accept.

The public’s lack of support for reform is due in part to their disgust with and distrust of their political leaders in Washington.

Douglas Schoen is a political strategist and author of the upcoming book Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System to be published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins on September 14. Schoen has worked on numerous campaigns, including those of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Evan Bayh, Tony Blair, and Ed Koch.