Let me get this right: we're on the verge of the biggest expansion of government-supplied benefits to the elderly in generations and the Democrats are against it? They're nuts.
If the early-21st century incarnation of the party of Franklin Roosevelt stands opposed to this opportunity to broaden Medicare, I do not know what it does stand for. And neither will lots of voters a year from now.
I understand that this is a "bad bill." I'm confident some, not all, of the specific indictments of the legislation are true. But the big picture here is that something badly broken is going to be repaired, though not perfected, and they're against it.
For years and years the political system has been unable to correct an absurdity in perhaps the most important of all government domestic programs -- the absence of Medicare coverage for the most basic medical service used by older people, prescription medicine. For eight years, the Democrats had one of their own in the White House and they couldn't make this fix. And now they are contemplating blocking legislation because it is, they say, flawed.
My take is very, very simple: if the Democrats don't have the guts to seize the opportunity and the confidence that they and the voters will improve the program over time, they should get out of the game. And I think that's exactly what many voters will tell them to do next November.
If Democrats do succeed in blocking this legislation, when will another opportunity come? An important opportunity, I would add, not just to cover prescription drugs, but also to hugely expand and entrench what Republicans used to call an "entitlement program."
Democrats that oppose this bill, and their affiliated pundits and think tanks, will here condemn my argument on at least two major counts. First, they say the evil Republican authors of the bill really intend to kill Medicare over time and that's exactly why they put in all that private plan stuff. I don't buy it.
Some Republicans do want to nuke Medicare, not all, not most, and they won't succeed. Pouring $400 billion into Medicare is simply not the way to kill it, no matter how much is spilled into things "private." And the big push for broad privatization experiments do not come until 2010, plenty of time to change the course. The big picture: Medicare will not be dissolved in the lifetimes of anyone reading these words. The electorate will not tolerate it. If Republicans think they have built a Trojan horse, they're wrong. Unless feckless Democrats prove them right over time.
Count two: the bill is a sell-out to drug companies and special interests. Maybe. But it's also a sell-out that will benefit a hell of a lot of old people. Commentators point to the fact that drug company stocks went up after the deal was announced as proof of the dastardliness of the legislation. It proves no such thing; this does not have to be a zero-sum game. Some archconservatives oppose this bill because it expands a government program and spends too much money. By the logic of the Democratic opponents, this is a reason to be for the bill.
In my simpleton's view, spending more money on medicine might actually help patients. If capitalist pharmaceutical companies make more money, well, I can live with it. Maybe more new medicines will be invented and maybe I'll take one of them someday. And maybe, just maybe, if this bill had been a total crackdown on the drug companies, they would be blocking it and prescription drugs would never be covered. (Forgive me, politically correct Father, for I have sinned with these words.)
So, note to Democrats: pass the bill now and worry about busting drug companies later.
In their relationship with the epitome of all special interests, the AARP, the Democrats are now acting like a lover scorned. How dare they dance with the dark side. The AARP boos once wrote a suck-up introduction to a book by Newt Gingrich, so the whole group and every position they might take is polluted. Yes, the AARP is a bargain-making, opportunity-seeking, pluralistic mess, just like Congress.
And Democrats in Congress haven't done anything big in a very long time. During the two terms of the Clinton presidency, there simply was no landmark Democratic Party legislation enacted. (Eight years of peace and prosperity yes: legacy, no.)
Politically, I don't think voters will forgive Democrats for killing this bill. If they block it, they get all the blame and absolutely no credit for preventing a potential evil. Democrats could be in the wilderness for a long time.
If the bill passes, Bush will not get all the credit -- unless the Democrats give it to him. They are in the process of doing just that. The Democrats can, and should, seek credit for expanding Medicare. Perhaps enough so that they can effectively reform this reform down the road.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer