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Cynicism and the Anti-Entitlement

[Update: comments now enabled, sorry.]

I used to be obsessed with the Medicare Prescription Drug bill, especially when I was starting my blog more than two years ago, but I haven"t written anything about it since the law took effect this month and all manner of chaos ensued. Why not? Aside from the usual excuses (Where"s that promised follow-up on lobbying reform? What about my half-finished takedown of the "unitary executive" theory?), none of this feels like news to me. Every single thing that"s happened this month was entirely predictable at the time the bill passed. Not just predictable, it was predicted, not just by me, but by everyone who wasn"t engaged in trying to get the bill passed or profit from it.

That"s a very important point to get across to the seniors who are now so predictably outraged. Their GOP representatives will blame it on "unintended consequences" and glitches in implementation, but that spin must not be allowed to stand. Every problem they are encountering was built in from the start in the structure that forces elderly and disabled people, their adult children or helpers, to make immensely complicated financial and medical choices, for a benefit that amounts to nothing more than a modest discount on wildly inflated prices. This is what they voted for, and they know it.

But this brings me to my main point: They really did know it. The Republican leaders who forced this bill through in a three-hour vote are many things, but they are not, in the main, complete idiots. They have their ideology about market systems and they don"t necessarily have an Yglesian appetite for analysis of policy detail, but they surely knew that there would be a backlash when this bill took effect. They had to have known it, at least some of them. They"ve got mommas. And yet as far as the public record shows, and accounts such as one published in The Hill on the anniversary of the three-hour vote which included a lot of the private conversations, none of this seemed to play any role in the debate. Advocates for the bill largely touted its immediate benefit for the President"s and their own reelection -- delivering on a promise, capturing the senior vote, never mind the details -- while opponents, or those who needed to be "persuaded," challenged the expense, or the betrayal of small government ideology, but for some reason never seemed to doubt the political calculation.

I"m skeptical, though. I think they expected a backlash and thought they could either ride it out or benefit from it. Sometime after the bill passed, I tried to write an essay called, "Bad government is good politics." It turned out not to be publishable because it was largely speculative and because the Medicare bill was really the only example I had at the time. But I wish I"d stuck with it. . My thesis was that Republicans knew there would be a backlash against the Medicare bill, but they understood that it would take the form of a backlash against government in general, and that would be to their advantage. Seniors struggling over a dining table covered with complicated forms, small-print prescriptions, and no-win choices weren"t going to be muttering, "Goddamn Dennis Hastert, I"m never voting for his party again." They would be muttering, "Damn government, can"t do anything right."

Seniors have been bonded to government, and hence to the Democratic Party, by the painless single-payer health system known as Medicare. The Medicare drug benefit would, in effect, reverse this bond. In another piece last year, I referred to the prescription drug benefit as an "anti-entitlement," because it takes all the advantages of an entitlement -- predictability, fairness, efficiency -- and turns them on their head. As I see it, the political goal of the Medicare drug bill was not to cement a new alliance between seniors and the Republican Party around a government program, but primarily to destabilize the old alliance.

Granted, this is a very different interprepretation of the political calculus than that advanced by Robert Novak, who claims that this was all a plan by Rove to capture the loyalty of lower-income seniors and it merely backfired. If that is true, the word "genius" must never again appear in the same sentence as "Karl Rove," and Tom DeLay"s reported contempt for Rove as a direct-mail guy with an outsized ego seems spot on.

As rage against the Medicare drug bill built, I predicted, Democrats would be unable to take advantage of it because of the Robert Samuelson-type conventional wisdom that the only good thing about the Republican bill was that it was cheaper and simpler than whatever expensive mess the Democrats would produce. Never mind that that wasn"t true. After all, Bill Clinton had proposed a plan in 2000 that, without cooking the books, was estimated to have cost $253 billion over ten years, had no donut hole, and, unlike this plan, would have covered every dime above $4,000 in prescription costs so no senior would be bankrupted by drug costs alone. That would have been a true entitlement, fair, efficient and predictable. Unfortunately, rather than pulling out that well-vetted plan, House Democrats played to expectations, treating the bill as a bidding war and opening the bidding at $1 trillion.

The backlash against the Medicare drug bill may or may not be a backlash against the people responsible for the Medicare drug bill. If it merely increases cynicism and deepens the sense that government can"t do anything right, then the ground remains fertile for the Republican anti-government message -- even if it is Republicans themselves who betrayed their own anti-government message. Democrats have a very complicated (but absolutely true) story to tell here: They have to show that the Medicare bill was a guaranteed disaster from the start, that its consequences were not accidental but imtimately related to the corruption of the Republican majority, and that there is an alternative that would do more an cost less, and that Democrats would make it happen. We cannot assume that this story will occur automatically to people as they struggle with the program.

There"s a similar problem with issues of corruption. The current scandal is huge, probably the biggest congressional corruption scandal ever, and provably a Republican scandal. But it"s nonetheless possible that, with the happy cooperation of the media, it will just increase the general sense that politicians are crooked, and some evidence from polling that that"s the case.Again, the story has to be clear, and accurate: The level and type of corruption in this enterprise were something we have never seen before, and they were endemic to this particular congressional leadership. This is not a natural thing that happens when one party holds power, and if Democrats hold power, things will be different. The rules, written and unwritten, will change.

But people have a natural inclination to believe in concepts like good intentions gone awry (Medicare) or that power inevitably corrupts. Those natural inclinations are right now a barrier to understanding the real true stories behind these two scandals.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 19, 2006 | Permalink


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I think you are right. Have you thought that a corollary of this argument, is that the next Democratic Presidential Candidate should be a Governor - one who say "look this is how it is done".

Posted by: reason | Jan 25, 2006 5:36:21 AM

It would truly seem, based on human nature, that this has and will be repeated in some form in the future.

The only final solution "a definitive solution" would be to take all those involved out back and execute them. The next group in government would then be "wary" and give a little more back to the people who make their careers possible.

Posted by: Ed | Jan 25, 2006 10:28:43 AM

An important post, receiving less attention (including mine) than it deserves. Glad comments are finally on.

All scandals favor the Right in the long run.

A key point of long-run neocon strategy is to concentrate their attack (by sabotage as well and defamation) on programs that work -- not programs that fail.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Jan 25, 2006 2:51:46 PM

The trouble is that it is a complicated story -- by public debate standards -- to explain to people that the Republicans wanted to do this so that they could increase hostility toward government in general so that in the long run they could succeed in their small government goals.

Fortunately, another theme, which is both true and consistent with the Democratic message, is both pithy and powerful -- The Republicans did it to enrich their friends at the big Pharmaceutical companies.

Posted by: The Goatherder | Feb 21, 2006 5:01:04 PM


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