Nearing the end of a catastrophic presidency George Bush seeks redemption in odd ways. Having wrecked Iraq he takes aim at Iran. Having denied global warming, he asks others to fix it. Having waged war on a credit card, he mimics fiscal prudence in symbolic budget battles with Congress.
It's all too little and too late; sort of like Britney Spears staying home a night a week in hopes of being named mother of the year. But for Bush, it's never too late to do some damage, which brings us to a tough topic for Britney and Bush: the health of children
In a saner world, Bush's veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill would be unexplainable. The basic facts:
SCHIP insures 6.5 million kids in families earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level, or $41, 300 a year for a family of four. States can set lower limits and many do. The bill Bush vetoed raised eligibility to 300% of poverty, extending coverage to 4 million children. The cost: 35 billion over 5 years. Bush makes two arguments: we can't afford it and even if we could, it's creeping socialism.
Bush's math is as fuzzy as ever. He says his budget strengthened SCHIP. Read the fine print. The $5 billion he'd add over five years is only a third of the inflation rate. That means a substantial cut, not an increase, in the number of children covered.
He says the bill he vetoed covers families of four earning as much as $83,000 a year. It's true, but only in one state, New York, which somehow brokered an eligibility limit of 400% of the FPL. He could have pared New York back had he not shunned negotiations sought by the bill's cosponsor, Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa.
The real eligibility limit for a family of four would be $62,000, qualifying it not for free insurance, but only a cap on its annual medical expenses set at about $3,000. Bush says it would rob them of "initiative."
Before agreeing, do something he never does. Imagine it's your family living on $62,000, shelling out $1,000 a month or more for health insurance. Now add $10,000 in bills, an 'adjustable' mortgage, a daughter looking at colleges and $3 a gallon gas.
Behold: A middle class family, circa 2007. Poor? No. Living the American Dream? Not even close. In need of a hand? You bet, and the sooner the better.
Most eligible families earn far less than $62,000. If a family member has a preexisting medical condition they pay far more in premiums--if they have insurance at all. For the children, millions of them, health care that ought to be a right is out of reach.
After seven years of war, gluttonous pork barrel spending and massive tax cuts, Bush saying we can't afford health care for our children is like a father coming home to say there's no money for groceries because he spent it all on drink or at the track. Thus the need for a second argument, that the bill is 'European' or 'socialist.'
If this were a movie it would be funny. Until Bush held them up at the border, seniors flocked to Canada for lower drug prices. They'd have swum to Europe if it weren't so far.
As for socialism, we have it now. Government pays the lion's share of health care costs and gets less for it every year because it can't tame the insurance industrial complex. Bush cries 'free market' but his pork fest of a Medicare drug bill stifled competition and guaranteed industry profits. It's called corporate socialism and Bush is its Lenin.
Amazingly enough, Republican presidential candidates stumble over one another in a rush to back him up. As a wise man said, never underestimate the capacity of an entire social order to commit suicide.
Republicans in Congress may have keener survival instincts. Their choice: to feel the gratitude of the children or the wrath of the adults. Democrats gave them time to mull it over while they batter them with negative TV ads. In one, a droll child threatens to stop having his picture taken with Republicans until they get him some health care.
The ads follow up a Democratic radio pitch featuring young Graeme Foster, who thanked SCHIP for footing his hospital bills after an automobile accident. Republicans answered in their usual style, peddling false charges that the family defrauded the program.
Yes, it has come to this--Republicans swift-boating twelve year olds. You must admire the chutzpa it takes for the folks who gave us Harry and Louise to question a young coma survivor gamely facing life with a paralyzed vocal chord.
One wonders how Harry and Louise are doing 14 years after fretting over Hillary-Care. Do they still worry about high prices and big bureaucracies or did they reach Medicare eligibility? No doubt they could teach the Fosters a thing or two about waiting one's turn.
Republicans look both slimy and clueless. It doesn't matter if the Frosts are secretly middle class; middle class families can't pay their health care bills either. To help them government must play a bigger, smarter role, as in every other developed nation.
We pay twice what any other country pays for overhead, as much as 30 cents of every health care dollar. "Socialist" Canada is second at about 16 cents. Until voters find out that Aetna charges 20 cents to do what Medicare does for a nickel and that federal law guarantees their right to go right on doing it, real change will elude us.
The Clinton, Obama and Edwards plans all include options to buy insurance through government. In quality and price, their public plans will blow private plans out of the water. They spend their time reassuring us we can keep current coverage. They should also explain why so few of us will.
Republicans are better than Democrats at debate because they still look to think tanks for policy while Democrats look to pollsters for themes: Republicans say SCHIP costs too much and sends us down a slippery slope to statism. Democrats say Bush hates kids.
The voices of children should be enough to win this round but to get universal care through Congress Democrats must explain why we need government not only to expand access but to bring down costs. That mean adults getting on the radio and telling us what they know about the cost of corporate socialism.