Too bad Newt Gingrich took back what he said on Meet the Press about the House Republicans' plan to transform Medicare being radical and politically dangerous. He was right, as evidenced by the result of the speical election race in western New York Tuesday night, and if anyone should know it's Gingrich. When he was a brand new speaker of the House in 1995, he was eerily like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., in his zeal to remake Medicare. And as Ryan is now, Gingrich paid a terrible personal price and badly damaged his party. If anything, Republicans should be thanking Newt for the warning.
Winning elections is a powerful drug, and in 1995 House Republicans were perilously high after booting the Democrats after 40 years of control. They thought their mandate was big enough to support privatizing Medicare by morphing it into managed care. Oops. The plan was for seniors to migrate to Medicare HMOs from traditional Medicare, which allowed beneficiaries to choose their doctors and was dominated (as it is today) by a central bureaucracy that set policies and paid the bills. And which Gingrich likened, in his characteristically low-key way, to communism.
In an infamous speech to Blue Cross/Blue Shield conference, Gingrich said the Medicare bureaucracy was "everything we're telling Boris Yeltsin to get rid of." Then came the words that have haunted him ever since: "Now we don't get rid of it in round one because we don't think that's politically smart, and we don't think that's the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it's going to wither on the vine because we think people are going to voluntarily leave it. Voluntarily."
Note how Gingrich repeated the word "voluntarily," as if he knew this was a problem. It was. Voters (with more than a little help from President Clinton and happy Democrats) disbelieved it. The phrase "wither on the vine" was what stuck in their minds, and while Newt's defenders insist to this day that he was referring only to the Medicare bureaucracy, that's a distinction without a difference. Without a bureaucracy to run it, traditional Medicare couldn't exist.
In dollar terms, the Gingrich plan proposed to cut $270 billion out of Medicare over seven years, which Gingrich insisted was not a "cut" but just slower growth. Again, few believed it -- rightly, since it's a specious argument if you factor in medical inflation and a growing elderly population.
But the details are beside the point. The politics were deadly. By October 1995, a New York Times/CBS poll showed that voters, especially seniors, disapproved of the Gingrich plan by 2 to 1. Then came two government shutdowns -- in part over a GOP proposal on Medicare premiums -- and by January 1996, the House Republicans, so confident a year earlier, had been routed.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., who had sided uncomfortably with Gingrich for most of 1995, went on to lose the presidential election to a resurgent Clinton, and the Gingrich revolution, for the most part, was over. Overreaching on Medicare and Gingrich's grandiose and incautious rhetoric had mortally wounded it. So when Newt warned that Ryan's plan to voucherize Medicare smelled too much like risky "radical change," he was, in his usual clumsy way, trying to do his political descendants a favor. They should listen.
George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.
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