Former Florida governor Jeb Bush got a practical lesson this week on the political risks of venturing into entitlement reform – especially when it has to do with reforming Medicare healthcare benefits for seniors.
Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and a handful of other Republican presidential candidates have begun addressing the need for reforms of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to avert a return to massive budget deficits in the coming decade. But in the process, they are drawing fire from liberal Democrats and senior advocacy organizations.
During a discussion sponsored by the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity Wednesday evening, Bush rebuked liberals for refusing to talk about entitlement reform and gave the example of Democrats' response to Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal to overhaul Medicare. Ryan’s proposal would preserve Medicare coverage for the current senior population but would move towards a voucher system to help finance health care coverage for future generations of elderly Americans.
"The first thing I saw was a TV ad of a guy that looked just like Paul Ryan ... that was pushing an elderly person off the cliff in a wheelchair. That's their response," Bush said derisively.
"I think a lot of people recognize that we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits,” Bush said. “But that we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something, because they're not going to have anything."
Democrats seized on the comments, saying they show Bush is out of touch with middle class families. At a town hall in Gorham, N.H., on Thursday, Bush attacked Democrats for not being willing to have a grown up conversation about unsustainable entitlement promises. He assured a woman accused him of attacking seniors and threatening to do away with or change Medicare that his plan would not change Medicare for seniors who are currently receiving the benefit.
"No, no... I didn't say that," Bush responded. "I said we're going to have to reform our entitlement system."
Bush, who served two terms as governor of a state with a huge population of seniors, said his comments on reform had been taken out of context.
Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party Ray Buckley, told reporters that Bush and other Republicans would face strong opposition in his state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary next year if they try to “destroy Medicare."
He added that Bush is highly mistaken if he thinks phasing out Medicare will be a winning argument during the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. I'm happy to take that bet,” he said. “Not here in the Granite State.”
After month of silence, many of the 2016 presidential candidates have begun talking about how the government’s $18.6 trillion in long-term debt could threaten the U.S. economy, and what they would do to address the mounting problem if they win election, as The Fiscal Times reported earlier this week.
A combination of factors, including the international debt crisis in Greece and the Congressional Budget Office’s repeated warnings that the U.S. could be headed for a return to trillion-dollar-a-year deficits, may have caught their attention.