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Breathtaking Republican Hypocrisy on Medicare

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MCCONNELL
AP

Republican hypocrisy on "cutting" versus "saving" Medicare has reached the point where it almost literally knows no bounds. To be sure, Republicans have always fundamentally been against the concept of Medicare, from the very beginning. That's an ideological position which you may or may not agree with, but Republicans have at least held to it fairly consistently over the past half-century or so. But the fetid stench of hypocrisy entered into Republican discourse last year, when they attempted to position themselves as (believe it or not) the ones who were going to "save Medicare." One year later, they are attempting to end the program as we know it within 10 years. In other words: Republicans were against Medicare, before they were for it, before they were against it, again.

President Obama gave a speech today in which he outlined some new (and some old) budget proposals. He was largely forced to do so because Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the key House budget-writing committee, introduced his budget proposal last week. Ryan's proposal would, within a decade, replace Medicare as it stands today with a voucher system where seniors would get a set amount which they could use to buy health insurance on the open marketplace. If health insurance cost more than the voucher amount, well... tough beans, Granny. This is not just a radical change, it is an absolutely fundamental restructuring of the Medicare system, which would cut trillions of dollars from the program over time.

But let's put aside Obama's new ideas for the moment, and (to be fair), also put aside Paul Ryan's drastic redefinition of the concept of Medicare. Because it is worth getting specific here, and taking a look at the Republican Party line over the past year or so over just one issue in this debate. Because even without considering Ryan's voucherized Medicare plan, the Republican hypocrisy still raises a rhetorical reek.

To understand this pervasive hypocritical stench, we turn to an Associated Press article today which was titled "House GOP Budget Retains Democratic Medicare Cuts," which begins:

In a postelection reversal, House Republicans are supporting nearly $450 billion in Medicare cuts that they criticized vigorously last fall after Democrats and President Barack Obama passed them as part of their controversial health care law.

The cuts are included in the 2012 budget that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled last week and account for a significant share of the $5.8 trillion in claimed savings over the next decade.

The House is expected to vote on the blueprint this week.

Ryan's spokesman, Conor Sweeney, said the cuts are virtually the only part of "Obamacare" -- the term that Republicans use derisively to describe the health care law enacted last year -- that the Wisconsin Republican preserved when he drafted his budget.

What Sweeney is saying is that the only piece of "Obamacare" which Ryan thought was good enough to keep in his budget proposal was cutting about half a trillion bucks from Medicare. Let's take a quick look back and see what Republicans were saying about this exact proposal when it was introduced, shall we?

First up, we have Speaker of the House John Boehner (back when he was Minority Leader), from a press conference he held on September 23, 2009:

The president continues to say that no Medicare beneficiary will see any reduction in benefits or services as a result of this health care bill. Well, it's become pretty clear that the $500 billion of cuts to Medicare will, in fact, affect seniors. The CBO yesterday -- the Congressional Budget Office -- made it clear that seniors are going to see less services as a result. We also know that the six million -- up to six million Americans who participate in Medicare Advantage are going to be severely affected by major changes in this program that are proposed in this bill. ... And so let's make it clear. Medicare cuts will, in fact, hurt the ability of seniors to get the services they get today. These cuts ought to come off the table. We ought to work together like the American people want us to, to have bipartisan reforms that make the current health care system work better.

Got that? The Medicare cuts "will, in fact, affect seniors" according to Boehner. They will "hurt the ability of seniors to get the services they get today."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had quite a bit to say about Medicare back then, as well. Here he is on the Senate floor, from July 16, 2009, speaking about the proposed Democratic bill:

And one of the worst parts is that advocates of the House bill want small businesses and seniors to pay for it. Businesses would pay through new taxes; seniors through cuts to Medicare -- cuts that hospitals in my own home state simply can't sustain. I have talked to hospitals in Kentucky who are really worried about the impact these Medicare cuts would have on the services that Kentucky hospitals currently provide to seniors, and I'd encourage all of my colleagues to talk to the people who care for patients day in and day out at hospitals in their own states and see what they have to say. It may be a lot different than what some of the interest groups in Washington are saying.

McConnell says Kentucky hospitals "simply can't sustain" these horrible, horrible Medicare cuts. A few months later, in a Republican press conference, McConnell expanded on his theme (September 24, 2009):

We wanted to take a few minutes and talk about the -- the health care debate. The proposal now being considered in the Finance Committee is a trillion-dollar experiment that cuts Medicare, raises taxes, and threatens the health care options that millions of Americans enjoy, and this is absolutely unacceptable.

. . .

I'm not sure I understand your question, but, you know, any time the Republican majority or the Republican president tried to stem the rate of growth -- growth of Medicare, we were accused of doing awful things to Medicare. There were no Democratic votes available for any of that. Those reductions in the rate of growth were quite modest compared to $500 billion over 10 years. It is Orwellian in the extreme for them to sit there and argue that $500 billion in cuts to Medicare are not cuts to Medicare. No one believes that. You don't believe it; I don't believe it; the American people don't believe it. They're taking $500 billion out of Medicare not to make it more sustainable, but to start a new federal program for a whole new set of citizens. This is a huge issue.

This introduces a Republican talking point which is sort of bizarre, that Democrats are cutting $500 billion "not to make it more sustainable." This is never explained, exactly, but it is repeated by many. Here is Senator Sam Brownback, from the same press conference, attempting a metaphor:

And on top of it, money is being taken from Medicare to start a new federal program. Medicare is not financially sustainable. As I've had people point out to me, that's like writing a big, fat check on a completely overdrawn bank account to buy a new car. Now, nobody in their right mind does that, and no banker lets them get away with it. I don't think the American people are going to let the Democrats in Congress get away with this.

Senator Lindsey Graham, on Greta Van Susteren's show on Fox News, was probably the most concise -- although he still didn't explain the talking point's concept at all (from March 23, 2010, speaking of the Democratic bill's costs and savings):

Well, when you add in interest and everything else, it's going to be well over $1 trillion. So how do they pay for it? They cut Medicare by over $500 billion -- not to save Medicare, but to take money out of Medicare, senior citizens, to pay for the uninsured.

How, exactly, do you "cut Medicare" in order to "save Medicare"? This detail is too trivial for explanation, apparently. Republicans would vaguely talk about taking the Medicare cuts and using them to "shore up Medicare," without explaining this zero-sum math at all. After all, if you cut money, and then use that money on the same program, then it is not a budget cut at all -- the same money goes into the same program.

Senator Roy Blunt was probably the most incoherent, when attempting to square this circle, on CNN (from March 10, 2010):

It's not like these programs we have already committed to are in such good shape that we don't need to worry about them. Everybody knows that Medicare, particularly, gets in big trouble as early as 2017. Any -- only the federal government would say we're going to take $500 billion from Medicare to start a new government program, as opposed to we're going to find savings in Medicare to save Medicare.

This is a no-brainer anywhere else in America. Only in Washington would that even be a reasonable thing to talk about.

A "no-brainer"? Really? The Republican idea is to "find savings in Medicare to save Medicare" -- much like that Vietnam village that had to be destroyed in order to save it? I'm confused.

Republicans quickly pivoted to just saying that Democrats were "cutting Medicare." It was a simpler argument to make, after all. The Associated Press article points this out by quoting from Republican attack ads used in the last campaign:

"Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick voted for Obamacare, costing us over $1 trillion and cutting Medicare for seniors," said an NRCC ad that ran during Rep. Paul Gosar's successful campaign in Arizona.

Rep. Sanford Bishop "voted to cut Medicare for our senior citizens by $500 billion," the NRCC said in a commercial that was part of an unsuccessful attempt to defeat a long-term Georgia Democratic incumbent.

"Let's save Medicare, and cut Schauer," the NRCC said in a third ad, this one part of a successful campaign in which Tim Walberg turned Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Mich., out of office.

Senator McConnell, however, had been saying this for a while. Here he is from a December 9, 2009 Senate floor speech:

The American people have now seen what Democrats in Congress plan to do with seniors' health care. They've looked on in total disbelief as the majority voted again and again to slash Medicare by nearly half a trillion dollars. Incredibly, these cuts represent just part of the pain caused by this bill. In addition to punishing seniors, it would punish businesses.

Democrats were going to "slash" Medicare, which would end up "punishing seniors." Good thing Republicans were around to fight this tooth and nail, eh? Here's another one of these would-be Medicare white knights, House member (and GOP party leader) Eric Cantor, from March 21, 2010, on ABC News, after being asked if the Democratic bill would "ruin our country today if it passes":

Jonathan, what is going on from my perspective, is the American people are full of fear about this bill. They see that this bill will take Medicare benefits from seniors. That's a scary thought.

OK, so Republicans are going to save Medicare from those scary, scary Democrats who are filling Americans with fear about slashing the $500 billion from Medicare in order to punish seniors. Got all that? Republicans want to "save" Medicare. Heartless Democrats want to "slash" it.

Once again -- putting aside the Medicare elephant in Paul Ryan's budget (voucherizing Medicare to end the system as we know it in ten years) -- the only part of "Obamacare" Ryan thought was good enough to keep was this exact same $500 billion savings. We end where we began, with the start of the AP article, just in case you had forgotten:

In a postelection reversal, House Republicans are supporting nearly $450 billion in Medicare cuts that they criticized vigorously last fall after Democrats and President Barack Obama passed them as part of their controversial health care law.

The cuts are included in the 2012 budget that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled last week and account for a significant share of the $5.8 trillion in claimed savings over the next decade.

The House is expected to vote on the blueprint this week.

Ryan's spokesman, Conor Sweeney, said the cuts are virtually the only part of "Obamacare" -- the term that Republicans use derisively to describe the health care law enacted last year -- that the Wisconsin Republican preserved when he drafted his budget.

The hypocrisy is just breathtaking. One of the proposals the Republicans fought hardest against -- one which they demagogued remorselessly out on the campaign trail -- is now deemed politically acceptable by the Republican budget guru. The same budget guru who can't give an interview these days without warning that those mean old Democrats are going to "lie and demagogue" about his budget plan in order to use it as a "political weapon" against Republicans. To which Ryan's response is always: "Shame on them."

Shame, indeed, Representative Ryan. Shame, indeed.

 

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