Medicare Held Hostage

No sooner had Republican congressional leaders reached a deal with Democrats April 8 on the current year's budget that cut $38 billion and averted a government shutdown, than the Republicans declared that they were prepared to hold hostage the increase in the federal debt limit unless President Obama makes more concessions.

“The president says I want you to send me a clean bill. Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you're going to get a clean bill. There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a Republican fundraiser.

How big? House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has proposed a 10-year budget plan that includes Medicare privatization and severe cuts to Medicaid, which as a block grant program would give states more flexibility in denying services to the poor and disabled. Ryan also proposes further tax breaks for the wealthy and a lower tax rate for corporations.

Obama and the Democrats should submit their own progressive budget proposal that would start by reversing the tax cuts on the wealthy that Congress approved in December and closing tax breaks that allow multinational corporations to park their profits offshore and escape US tax liability. Obama also should call for taxes on carbon emissions as part of a comprehensive program to reverse climate change, which is a much greater threat to our children and grandchildren than the national debt is.

Also, balancing the budget will require more aggressive controls on health-care costs with expedited implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And if private insurance companies can't provide affordable coverage, Medicare should get a shot at it.

Jonathan Cohn wrote at that Obama should call for the kind of blunt, global price controls you get in single-payer system. “In other words, a truly left-wing alternative on health care reform might actually justify the label 'government-run health care.'”

Instead, Obama appears to be embracing part of the center-right proposal of budget cuts and revenue increases that was drafted last year by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of the White House fiscal commission that never reached a consensus because Republicans on the panel rejected the tax increases.

Unfortunately, Obama's negotiating style seems to be: Start out meeting the Republicans half-way and then negotiate from there. So the Republicans end up with three-fourths of what they originally wanted and they still complain that they didn't get it all.

Ryan's plan would end the entitlement status of both Medicare and Medicaid. By 2030, the average senior on Medicare would be responsible for more than two-thirds of his or her medical expenses, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The New York Times' Paul Krugman blogged, “For all those older Americans who voted GOP last year because those nasty Democrats were going to cut Medicare, I have just one word: suckers!”

Seniors also should not be deceived by Ryan's proposal to maintain benefits for those older voters who are currently receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits. Once the Republicans remove the guaranteed Social Security and Medicare benefits from the younger generations, younger voters will have less incentive to support those programs for their elders.

Overall, two-thirds of Ryan’s cuts would come from programs that serve the poor, even as it extends (or creates) tax cuts for the wealthy. It is a direct assault on the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and organized money has been building up to this battle for 75 years since Social Security was enacted.

Michael Waldman, former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, in an interview with the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent (4/11), noted that Clinton seized on a previous Republican attempt to cut Medicare to reaffirm his support for the social contract as embodied in Johnson's promise to protect America's weakest.

In a speech on Nov. 10, 1995, Waldman recalled, Clinton cast the battle as one over his belief that government's role is to guard against the excesses of a cutthroat society.

Sargent noted that contemporaneous press accounts indicate that it was only after Clinton adopted this strategy of fighting that he began to rise in the polls.

Waldman acknowledged that Clinton had first needed to move to the center. But after that, “He drew a clear line in the sand on the things that he wasn’t going to compromise on,” Waldman says. “He fought a real public battle on those things. He drew a sharp line on core principles, and fought for them very hard.”

Waldman noted that Obama now has a chance to do the same. “This is an opportunity for him to spell out with clarity his vision of the role of government,” Waldman said. “If he doesn’t, it will be an opportunity lost.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on April 6 urged the Democrats to take a hard line in response to Ryan’s Medicare proposal, as they did in 2005 when she refused to take the GOP’s bait by offering a Democratic plan to “fix” Social Security.

Unfortunately, Pelosi is not directing the messaging this year and progressives cannot trust Obama to hold the line on the left. So progressives must put pressure on Democratic senators and make it clear to them that those who enable the dismantling of Social Security or Medicare don’t deserve a place on the Democratic ballot.

There is nothing wrong with domestic spending. The problem is running two wars “off the books” and letting defense contractors overcharge the government with cost-plus invoices. Bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, tell the defense contractors to find honest work and restore tax rates at least to Clinton-era levels — and perhaps add some more aggressive taxes on corporations, millionaires and Wall Street speculators, and the deficit will take care of itself. Then we’ll see Republicans once again complaining about federal surpluses, as then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan did in 2001 in arguing that Clinton-era surpluses would hurt the economy.

Obama must make it plain that the debt ceiling must be increased to pay debts not only from the past two years, but also debts that were incurred during the administration of George W. Bush. John Boehner and his teabaggers are in a position to do greater damage to the US than Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. But Obama should not concede one cent of tribute from Medicare or Social Security to these economic terrorists!

UPDATE: President Obama delivered a great speech at George Washington University April 13. But progressive populists still need to make sure Obama and the Democratic Senate stand up to Republicans in the House.

Keep Up the Fight

Federal officials should step in to verify the 14,000 ballots reportedly discovered in Waukesha County, Wis., two days after the closely watched Supreme Court election by a partisan county clerk who has had suspicious election results before. Numbers crunchers such as Nate Silver of say the results reported by County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus correspond with past voting patterns in the conservative county, but democracy demands a higher standard of transparency.

Progressives should not let the Waukesha surprise discourage their efforts to turn back the radical Republican regime of Gov. Scott Walker. Democrats did a great job in filling the 30-point gap in the court race from the February primary election and they haven’t lost a step in their efforts to recall eight radical Republican state senators this spring. At least three of those senators trailed generic Dems in a recent poll and their replacements would swing the state Senate back to Democratic control.

Republicans nationwide could not make it any clearer that their plan is to dismantle programs that progressive Democrats have implemented since the New Deal to help the poor and the working class not only survive but join in the shared prosperity that made America's middle class the envy of the world. Destroying labor unions is a key to that Republican plan and they're playing for keeps, as power grabs in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Maine and Florida show.

If your Democratic representative or senators are disappointments, work to elect more progressive candidates. But this is no time to let your dissatisfaction with corporate Dems discourage you from pushing a more progressive populist agenda. — JMC