The GOP Makes Medicare “Overhaul” A Litmus Test

Newt Gingrich

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Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has spent the last three days being flogged by Republican politicians and conservative commentators.  His sin? He criticised the House Republican plan for “overhauling” Medicare, calling it a “radical” step that the party would be well-advised to think through before taking. We have to backfill a bit before we get to the substance of the matter:

Mr. Gingrich made his remarks about the House Republican plan as an announced candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Gingrich is famous for musing aloud about sensitive political subjects.  He loves to hear himself talk.  It’s one thing to be a commentator and talk off the top of your head.  It’s another thing altogether when you’re running for your party’s presidential nomination. 

There are about 7,000 Republican strategists and 13,000 political reporters who see Gingrich’s chatterbox tendencies as his fatal flaw. So when he appeared on the NBC News program “Meet The Press” and criticised the House GOP’s Medicare “overhaul” plan, 7,000 Republican strategists and 13,000 political reporters got on the phone with one another to tell each other that Gingrich had just confirmed all of their worst suspicions about him as a presidential candidate.  “He’s dead,” they said to each other.  “Newt Gingrich’s campaign is on the verge of collapse,” is what they wrote in their stories and reports.

Back to the substance.  Is Mr. Gingrich right?  Is the House Republican Medicare “overhaul” plan too radical a step for the country? 

Yes and no.  No, it’s not too radical a step if the Ryan plan is flawlessly executed and the great transition from Medicare coverage to subsidized health insurance coverage works reasonably well.  It’s certainly not the end of the world that the Democrats would like you to believe it to be.

That said, the House Republican Medicare “overhaul” plan is something close to political suicide for the GOP.  President Obama will make his “defence” of Medicare the centrepiece of his reelection campaign.  He’s not doing that because he cares deeply about gaggles of blue-hairs in Florida.  He’s doing it because he knows a winning political issue when he see one. 

Defending Medicare, a hugely popular entitlement program, is second only to defending Social Security in the category of political lay-ups.  It’s easy.  It’s productive (it produces votes).  And it allows the “defender” to imagine that he or she occupies the Moral High Ground (also known as MOHGRO). Pols love that MOHGRO. It makes them feel….righteous.

The last time Republicans talked about reforming Medicare during a national political campaign, back in 1996, then-President Bill Clinton took the issue and shoved it down their throats.  Then he kicked their teeth in with it.  Why Republicans think that the Republican House plan to “overhaul” Medicare will fare any better in front of an even older, more Medicare-friendly electorate is something of a mystery. 

The country’s smartest and most astute analysts think the issue will be a disaster for the GOP.  Many House and Senate Republican candidates up for re-election next year feel exactly the same way.  Which is why the “overhaul” plan is already dead-on-arrival at the Ways and Means Committee in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Jumping ugly all over Mr. Gingrich because he sought to put distance between the GOP and the House Republican plan for “overhauling” Medicare is fair enough.  The truth is no one really likes Gingrich.  They’re happy to have any excuse to beat him with sticks.   

But disregarding his political advice — don’t make the Medicare “overhaul” plan a litmus test — isn’t just short-sighted, it’s politically insane.  Gingrich is right on the politics.  The Medicare issue is like nitroglycerin.  It has to be handled with tremendous care, especially by Republicans.