Social Security has long been considered the most dangerous third rail of American politics—meaning politicians who dare to touch it can expect to be eviscerated or at least seriously burned.
As moderator David Gregory said on Meet the Press yesterday morning, Medicare has become “the new third rail.” The difference is that Republicans led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan have had the audacity—some would say courage—to grab hold of this third rail with both hands and confront the deficit challenge that Medicare presents.
But Ryan and the GOP body politic are now feeling a powerful shock as the electorate gets electric over Medicare, which is shaping up as the most crucial issue in the 2012 election.
That has Democrats smelling blood. In a special congressional election in Upstate New York last week, the Republican favored to win in a usually conservative district was defeated by her Democratic challenger largely, it is believed, because the GOP candidate, Jane Corwin, had embraced the Ryan plan.
Meet the Press
When asked if Medicare has become a third rail, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said: “…Look, Standard & Poor’s recently sent us a warning signal they're about to downgrade the credit rating of the United States. We have a $14 trillion deficit…which makes us look like Greece; and, by the way, $50 trillion-plus in unfunded liabilities and popular entitlement programs.”
But McConnell was evasive when pressed by Gregory to say whether he considered Medicare a third rail and whether he was giving full-throated support to the Ryan plan.
“You voted for [the Ryan plan in the Senate], but you didn't rally your colleagues behind it, and it failed. So there seems to be a split in the party,” Gregory said.
“Actually, there's very little split in the party at all,” McConnell said. “We all know Medicare's going to change. It's got to change. And our Democratic friends in the Senate have no plan at all. The president, to his credit, is at the table discussing with us the way in which you save Medicare. Medicare is going down. Doing nothing is not a plan. And we're going to negotiate the contours of the plan…. I'm personally very comfortable with the way Paul Ryan would structure it in the out years. But we have a Democratic president. We're going to have to negotiate with him on the terms of changing Medicare so we can save Medicare.”
“Are you confident that the debt ceiling will ultimately be raised?” Gregory asked.
“I'm confident that unless we do something really significant about debt and deficit, it's not going to be raised,” McConnell replied.
The next guest, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, said Republicans are trying to end Medicare with the Ryan plan and called on McConnell and his colleagues to take it off the table.
“But, Senator, it is off the table,” Gregory said. “It failed in the Senate.”
Schumer seemed to suggest that was just a setback and went on to say that while most Americans are happy with Medicare, it is an inefficient system.
“The root of the problem is it's a cost-plus system,” said Schumer. “When you're sick, the doctor gets paid for each service, each prescription, each pill, each test. If you were to tell doctors you get a certain amount of money to treat Jim Smith, who has a certain form of diabetes, say $10,000, every study shows that you'd save hundreds of billions of dollars without cutting the benefits to people. That's what Democrats stand for. And the reason our Republican colleagues resist is they don't want the present Medicare system to be preserved.”
Earlier, Gregory ran a clip of former President Bill Clinton speaking at the Peterson Foundation Fiscal Summit in Washington last week (Pete Peterson is a principal backer of The Fiscal Times).
In the clip, Clinton said: “I'm afraid that the Democrats will draw the conclusion that, because Congressman Ryan's proposal I think is not the best one, that we shouldn't do anything. And I completely disagree with that.”
“Is there a danger for Democrats in not seriously engaging on Medicare as being seen as abdicating responsibility on really fighting the deficit writ large?” Gregory asked Schumer.
“I don't know a single Democrat who is saying do nothing. That is Mitch McConnell's way of diverting attention from the Ryan plan, which he refuses to take off the table,” Schumer said.
“If you turn [Medicare into] a system where the insurance companies govern, here's what happens according to the [nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office]: the beneficiaries, instead of paying 25 percent, pay 68 percent. But at the same time, the costs don't go down, they continue to rise because the insurance companies pass the costs to the beneficiaries. That is wrong. That is not politics, I would say to my dear friend Senator McConnell. …And we will oppose [the Republicans] in the budget negotiations if they don't abandon Ryan, and it will legitimately be one of the major issues of the election year in 2012.
“I've studied elections for awhile,” Schumer continued, “and if either party moves too far to the extreme, they lose. Republicans are rapidly moving…to an extreme direction by ending Medicare as we know it…. And if they continue this way, not only will we keep the Senate [in the 2012 elections], but we're very likely to pick up the House.”
Face the Nation
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz also saw a message for Republicans in the Upstate New York congressional election—namely that Americans under 55 feel they are being thrown under the Medicare bus.
What the GOP is telling them, she said is: “You know what? You're on your own. Go and find private health insurance in the health care insurance market…and allow insurance companies to deny you coverage and drop you for pre-existing conditions. ‘We're going to give you X amount of dollars and you figure it out.'”
Earlier House Majority Leader Eric Cantor conceded that the Ryan Medicare proposal played some role in the New York election loss but accused the Democrats of “demagoguing” the issue.
This Week with Christiane Amanapour
Republican Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty said that America needs to raise the Social Security retirement age for young people entering the workforce. But, he said, “For the people who are currently in the program, no changes. For people who are coming up on eligibility, no changes.”
The former Minnesota governor also said that he will offer his own Medicare plan. “We're going to give people lots of choices,” he said. “If they want to stay in the current Medicare program or whatever comes next in that program, great, that's their choice, but we're also going to offer them a serious of other choices so they can pick what's best for them and their families….”
But Pawlenty also said that “if the only choices were doing nothing like President Obama is doing and Paul Ryan's plan, I'd sign it.”
Later in the same program, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who disappointed a lot of Republicans last week when he decided not to seek the GOP Presidential nomination, suggested that had he been a candidate, he could have defeated Obama.
As former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin began a nationwide bus tour yesterday that will take her up the East Coast to New Hampshire, speculation was rife about her intentions and prospects if she does become a Presidential contender.
And in the next seven days former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are expected to officially enter the GOP race.