On Medicare, Republicans Continue to Be Admirably Foolish

Today, House Budget Committee chairman and GOP heartthrob Paul Ryan will release his latest budget proposal, and all right-thinking Republicans will line up to express their support (you may remember what happened to Newt Gingrich in May when he criticized a previous version of Ryan's plan and was punished for his heresy, then quickly backtracked). And I have to say, Republicans deserve some credit for this. Not because their plan to privatize Medicare will actually be good for seniors (it won't) or for the budget (it won't). But because in the face of nearly inevitable political damage, they forge right on ahead.

It isn't often you see politicians suffer politically for a position they take, then come right back and try it again. And it wasn't like they didn't know it was coming. After all, Democrats have been gleefully accusing them of trying to dismantle Medicare for decades, and so when they put forward a plan to actually dismantle Medicare, everybody knows what will happen: Democrats will say, "They're trying to dismantle Medicare!" Republicans will respond, "No we're not! We're trying to save it!" Democrats will come back with, "Oh please—who are you trying to kid?" and most of the public, particularly the seniors who rather like their guarantee of health coverage, will agree with the Democrats.

There are a few ways you can look at what Republicans are doing. Perhaps they believe that if they make their case, the public will come around. That's possible—self-delusion is a powerful thing. On the other hand, they may realize it's a short-term loser, but they're playing a longer game, hoping that if they just keep hammering away at it, one day public opinion will move in their direction and they'll have the opportunity, with control of Congress and the White House, to make it happen. That's more likely. But the final factor is the one I think is most important: They believe it.

We're often too quick to assume that the cynical political motivation is the only one that matters, but politicians have genuine beliefs, and they often act on those beliefs. Most Republicans really do believe that Medicare is a vile, socialistic cancer on the American system, and things would be much better if it were privatized. The fact that Medicare works so much better than private insurance (it has far lower administrative costs, and its overall costs have been rising at a slower rate than those of private insurance), and that it's so popular, is just all the more reason why it's so hateful to them. Medicare validates the idea that government can do something better than the private sector, standing as a living rebuke to arguments they make in so many areas.

Back when Medicare's creation was being debated, Ronald Reagan told Americans that if this terrifying monster of a program were to be enacted, one day "we will awake to find that we have socialism," and then "you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free." Today's Republicans may find that to be a bit of an exaggeration. But that doesn't mean they won't stop trying to undo it, even when they know it's going to cost them politically. So you have to give them some measure of credit for standing up for their beliefs.

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