On Wednesday forty radicals in the United States Senate took an extremist position by voting to end Medicare.
That simple sentence will be challenged by a lot of political and media people. They'll say I don't understand the popular mood, and that I'm applying my own values to Wednesday's vote. But I can prove this statement is true, using only a dictionary and some polling data. They'll even say they didn't vote to end Medicare! But that can be proved, too.
In a two-party system, that's a serious challenge for democracy.
A radical, extremist vote
Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal was rejected by 57-40. All the Senate's Democrats voted against it, and so did Republican Senators Rand Paul, Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski. On Medicare at least, these five Republicans did not reveal themselves to be radicals or extremists on Wednesday. Good for them.
Let's be clear: Americans in all walks of life, including politics, have every right to hold radical or extremist views. Some of our best and noblest ideas have come from radicals. The abolition of slavery, a woman's right to vote, financial security for elderly and disabled Americans -- each was considered a radical or extreme position at some point in history.
What these extremists don't have is the right to pretend they're reflecting mainstream political opinion. And in the case of the GOP budget, let's be clear: their extreme ideas are selfish and destructive, not noble, brave, or wise.
Did we mention that they're radical?
The Definition of 'Radical'
The Cambridge American Dictionary defines a "radical" as "a person who supports great social and political change." That's exactly what they're doing by voting to end Medicare. As the Congressional Budget Office, economist Dean Baker, and others have shown, the GOP plan would create a great change in the lives of every American over the age of 65. They would lose their guaranteed Medicare coverage, and would be forced to find health insurance in the notoriously unreliable health insurance market. Studies show they would also forced to pay enormous sums of money to receive health care coverage.
If seniors couldn't afford these skyrocketing private insurance premiums, then they wouldn't get health insurance. That means they'd be unable to receive medical care when they need it. Studies have shown that would lead to radical increases in illness and hospitalization rates among seniors, and would lead to earlier deaths for millions.
That sure sounds like "great social and political change" to me.
Newt Gingrich was right when he described the plan that these Senators just voted for as "right-wing social engineering." Gingrich, whose "Contract With America" was a brilliant piece of political phrasemaking, is well aware that the phrase "social engineering" originated with Lenin's attempts to radically rebuild Russian society in the years that immediately followed the Bolshevik Revolution.
Say what you will about ol' Newt, but he knows his history.
Who you calling 'extremist'?
Did these forty United States Senators really take an "extreme" position? Isn't that a little harsh?
No, it's not. The dictionary defines an "extremist" as "someone who has beliefs which most people think are unreasonable and unacceptable." These Senators are now on record as supporting a plan to end Medicare. Do "most people" people think that's "unreasonable and unacceptable"? Let's take a look.
The American Majority project has rounded up data from CAF polling and other sources, and the public's opinion on Medicare is clear. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 78% of those polled were opposed to cuts in Medicare spending and only 21% supported them.
Compare that 21% figure with the results of a recent Gallup poll which showed that 36% of those polled have a favorable view of socialism. Socialism! And socialism hasn't been promoted by one of our two major parties, subsidized by a highly-funded public relations and think-tank campaign, or endorsed by the mainstream media as a "very serious" attempt to address the country's issues.
If you think socialism's a little outside the political mainstream, then you must conclude that these forty Senators are as extreme as they come. And when 78% of the public finds your ideas "unreasonable and unacceptable," then guess what? You're an extremist.
What Medicare Isn't
Here's where it gets really loopy. Republicans, aided by sloppy "fact-checking" from the supposedly impartial website Politifact, continue to insist that they're not voting to end Medicare. I've already responded, in what may have been an overly indirect way, by turning their argument into an "Alice in Medicareland" story.
Here's the simple truth: Their plan would shut down the government's Medicare program and replace it with a system of vouchers (or "premium credits") of fixed value, which seniors could use to buy insurance. They can call that "Medicare" if they want, but it's not Medicare! At least, not by any common definition of the term.
"A federally funded system of health and hospital insurance for persons aged 65 and older and for disabled persons." (The Free Dictionary)
"... a two-part (A and B) federal health insurance program for Americans aged 65 and older and certain disabled people ..." (Bookman et al.)
"A Federal insurance program providing a wide range of benefits to providers and suppliers participating in the program." (Maryland Health Care Commission)
"Medical coverage available under Title XVIII of the Social Security Act to people 65 years of age or older and to certain disabled people under 65 years of age." (Texas State Department of Health and Human Services)
"... a Federal health insurance program that those ages 65 or older (and other excepted individuals) are eligible for." (State of North Carolina Department of State Treasurer)
Let the record show that all of the states whose websites are cited above lie below the Mason/Dixon Line (including Maryland). This is no Northern pinko plot. It's just what Medicare is. Medicare is an insurance program that provides a defined set of health benefits. It is not a voucher or tax break or government check, which can then be used in an (undoubtedly ill-fated) attempt to purchase health insurance that will provide a defined set of benefits.
We have now proved our statement. Forty [radicals] in the United States Senate did, in fact, take an [extremist] position by [voting to end Medicare.] QED.
Are we out of the rabbit hole yet?
Challenge or Compromise
What do you think would happen if forty Democratic Senators voted to nationalize all of the country's largest banks and insurance companies, or to impose strict wage and price controls? Remember, that's socialism, an ideology which polls considerably better than this anti-Medicare plan. Do you think the American media would receive such a vote with the same equanimity?
Democrats are reportedly planning to use Wednesday's vote to aggressively challenge the re-election bids of Senators Lugar and Heller, both of whom supported the plan. Well, of course they are! Why shouldn't they? These Senators voted for a radical, extremist plan. They and their party are going to pay a price for it at the polls -- that is, unless Democrats are blind enough to trade away their advantage by negotiating with the radicals and coming up with a semi-extremist "compromise."
Could that really happen? Unfortunately it could. With the White Houe pushing $300 billion in Medicare reimbursement cuts (through the so-called "doc fix") and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin reportedly willing to accept $400 billion in cuts, it's entirely possible that the Democrats will squander this political windfal.
The Way Out
There's another way to fix budget shortfalls like Medicare's. Congress could impose surtaxes on millionaires, for example, which is supported by 72% of the population. But Medicare's long-term budget problems are dire, and they're caused by the overall breakdown in this country's health system.
That system's problems include excessive profit-seeking behavior by hospitals and insurance companies, our ill-managed patchwork of employer-sponsored plans, wrongheaded incentives for doctors and hospitals, and all the other weaknesses that develop when two-thirds of our healthcare is financed outside a rational and structured system. These flaws bleed over into Medicare, which must then pay excessive costs for hospitals, tests, procedures, physician charges, and unnecessary procedures.
Countries with better systems pay far less for healthcare than we do and get much better results. So why not propose a "Medicare For All" system? That would be popular with mainstream America. Polls consistently show that solid majorities -- sometimes as many as two-thirds of Americans -- support the idea. So why are we talking about a voucher plan, when we'd be better off with a millionaire tax and a Medicare For All system, both of which are popular with the general public?
Oh, right. I forgot. Those ideas are too radical.
(Meet the Extremist Fringe: Find out if your Senator voted to end Medicare here.)
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "email@example.com."
Website: Eskow and Associates