Froma Harrop | Democrats Made Their Own Lumpy Bed

“Worried Democrats courting elderly voters as midterm elections near,” reads a headline in The Washington Post. It’s long been clear that if Democrats had been less afraid, they’d have less to be afraid of now.

Case in point was the brawl over health care, which a timid President Obama let go on and on in a fruitless quest for Republican support. As a result, Democrats squandered precious time pushing through the Affordable Health Care for America Act. That left two more months of toxic debate and two fewer months for the dust to settle.

Suppose President Obama had lowered the boom on the stupid-talk about government-run death panels rather than let it fester. A year ago, 36 percent of seniors thought that the bill would allow “a government panel to make decisions about end of life care for people on Medicare,” according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Another 17 percent weren’t sure. Unbelievable!

Once the bill became law, the propaganda campaign faded and public support for the legislation steadily rose. By last month, it stood at 50 percent, according to a recent Kaiser poll. More importantly, only 27 percent of Americans want the law repealed right away.

But the same poll shows the elderly more uncomfortable with the law than is the broader public. Some 48 percent of those 65 or older expect they will be worse off under it, while only 23 percent see themselves better off.

What should Democrats do? They should write their own headline: Health Reform Preserves Every Promised Medicare Benefit, Adds New Ones and Improves Program Finances. They might pass around copies of the Medicare trustees’ latest annual report. It says that the law will keep the program solvent for 12 more years than previously forecast.

It’s true that Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, has issued his own more pessimistic projection. He points out, for example, that the trustees don’t include the likelihood that Congress will prevent an automatic cut in payments to Medicare providers, as it does every year. (They’re not allowed to predict actions Congress may take.)

But some economists argue that the changes will significantly contain Medicare spending over the long term. After all, last year’s report — against whose numbers the new predictions are based — also didn’t account for the congressional vote to maintain reimbursement levels for Medicare providers.

Far easier to explain is Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to replace the current Medicare setup with a voucher system: Each beneficiary would receive a check with which to buy private coverage. The voucher would be worth less than the amount spent on the average Medicare beneficiary.

If slashing the soaring costs of Medicare is your only goal, this is the real deal. But if secure health coverage is the biggest factor, it’s the end of the world. The elderly lobby has quietly strangled Medicare voucher schemes in the past.

Republicans have never loved Social Security, but they know that plans to privatize the program remain deeply unpopular. A few holdouts still carry the privatization flag, but most others prefer another tack: undermining faith in the program’s solvency. Hence all this loose talk about the Social Security Trust Fund’s being “a fiction.”

Democrats should remind voters that American workers have been paying taxes into the trust fund for more than a quarter-century. That was real money, and the U.S. government has an obligation to pay it back.

Obama has shown spirit defending Social Security, but Democrats still strain under his delay in pushing through the health-care reforms. Had Democrats not been scared into letting the circus run overtime, they’d be a lot less worried about their prospects in November.

Copyright 2010 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by