Jeb Bush is flirting with disaster: Why his latest anti-Medicare fearmongering could sink his campaign

Bush has begun insisting that Medicare needs to be "phased out." Not only is that wrong, it's also toxic

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 24, 2015 4:15PM (EDT)

Jeb Bush                                  (Reuters/David Manning)
Jeb Bush (Reuters/David Manning)

It's been a good week for economic reports. For example, we heard that the jobless claims for June were lower than they've been in 40 years. Take it from someone who remembers 1975 -- it was a long time ago. The job market is finally looking up. And we also found out that Medicare is on stronger footing than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones wrote it up:

Ten years ago, Medicare was a runaway freight train. Spending was projected to increase indefinitely, rising to 13 percent of GDP by 2080. This year, spending is projected to slow down around 2040, and reaches only 6 percent of GDP by 2090.

Six percent! That's half what we thought a mere decade ago. If that isn't spectacular, I don't know what is.

Drum points out that this is largely being driven by the fact that medical costs overall have slowed dramatically. This is due to a number of factors, but one of the most significant has to be the Affordable Care Act's cuts to provider payments, which you will certainly recall had the Republicans whirling like tops with claims that President Obama was planning to turn the elderly into Soylent Green -- or submit them to ghoulish "death panels" at the very least. It was one of the primary motivating factors that drove the white elderly Republican base to invade town hall meetings by the hundreds and storm the voting booths in November of 2010 to decimate the Democratic congressional majority.

Ads like these ran all over the nation:

Republicans have run similar ads in every election since. Indeed, it's their most potent argument against Obamacare. And there's been every reason to believe that the Republicans would use this message again in 2016. After all, the Medicare constituency is their bread and butter, and they are, quite reasonably, protective of the program. They may selfishly not want anyone else to have health care but they damned sure want to make sure that seniors have the program. In case anyone hasn't noticed, the elderly have a lot of health problems. It has always made perfect sense for the GOP to demagogue any and all changes to the program.

This represented a very dramatic change in the demographic make-up of the two parties. Since their inception in the New Deal and Great Societies, Social Security and Medicare had made loyal Democratic voters out of the elderly. They were fiercely protective of the programs and the Republicans were caught by the trap their ideology forced them into. Ronald Reagan's GOP may have looked congenial to many older people -- but they knew that he wanted to end the programs that made it possible for them to live with dignity in their old age. So when they heard his famous recording railing against Medicare -- in which he said,"one of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project, most people are a little reluctant to oppose anything that suggests medical care for people who possibly can’t afford it" -- it sounded abstract and irrelevant to their very practical needs. (Not to mention obtuse; a medical program is a humanitarian project.) It's likely that many of them were just as staunchly anti-communist and anti-statist as Reagan, but few were willing to die prematurely to make that particular political point.

In the late 1980s, when a virulent strain of deficit fever invaded the swamps around the nation's capital, the government raised premiums on Medicare to provide some new coverage that many people didn't need and which didn't cover the one thing they need need, long term care. Seniors rebelled and they rebelled vociferously:

This summer's bitter struggle over the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988 has damaged the credibility of one of the nation`s largest lobbies, both in Congress and among the 28 million members of the American Association of Retired Persons.

From his retirement home in Las Vegas, Daniel Hawley, a 64-year-old former airline pilot, has helped organize the stunning grass-roots protest that has shaken AARP and pushed this largest expansion of Medicare benefits to the brink of congressional repeal.

"They thought retired people were sitting around doing their ceramics and their little aerobics classes in senior centers and wouldn't give any fight," said Hawley. "Well, they found out differently."

Indeed they did. This infamous (and hilarious) video of seniors chasing the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means committee perfectly captures the power the medicare constituency has over the U.S. Government:

They repealed the law in November 1989.

For a lot of reasons, older people began to vote for Republicans over the ensuing couple of decades. But the "Mediscare" campaigns continued to have potency for the Democrats. It wasn't until they came up with the Obamacare scare ads that the Republicans were able to turn the argument back on the Democrats. And it worked beautifully. It was a strong motivation for seniors to turn out in both recent mid-term elections, and while it wasn't enough to offset the Obama coalition's turn out in presidential years, it undoubtedly helped keep elderly white people in the Republican column. It's a darned good strategy.

So, what in the world is Jeb Bush up to? Has he been asleep for the past three election cycles? Did somebody forget to tell him that old white people are the GOP's most loyal voters and the new scheme is to say you're saving Medicare? He must not have gotten the memo because he's just spent the last couple of days telling audiences that Medicare is on its last legs and will have to be killed in favor of some new program, which will probably be along the lines of Paul Ryan's "shop for health care 'til you drop" voucher proposal.

Get a load of this commentary he made at a Koch Brothers sponsored Americans for Prosperity event on Wednesday:

“The left needs to join the conversation, but they haven’t. I mean, when [Rep. Paul Ryan] came up with, one of his proposals as it relates to Medicare, the first thing I saw was a TV ad of a guy that looked just like Paul Ryan … that was pushing an elderly person off the cliff in a wheelchair. That’s their response.

“And I think we need to be vigilant about this and persuade people that our, when your volunteers go door to door, and they talk to people, people understand this. They know, and I think a lot of people recognize that we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits. But that we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something – because they’re not going to have anything.”

That's the kind of braindead doofus "policy" talk you might expect from Donald Trump, not one of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. Sure, he uses some weasel words about fulfilling the commitment to people "who've already received benefits, are receiving the benefits," but he apparently didn't get the other memo that says seniors don't buy that line when Republicans say it about Social Security, and they aren't going to buy it when they say it about Medicare.

The idea of telling anyone that the program "must be phased out" for something "new" because they're not going to have anything is just daft. Even Paul Ryan's privatization plans never said that he planned to phase out the most popular health care program in America (even though he did plan exactly that). Even more daft is the idea that Bush would say this at a time when the projections for Medicare solvency are, as Kevin Drum said, "spectacular."

But Jeb didn't misspeak. He meant it.  He actually doubled down on that claim in New Hampshire yesterday, saying "we have a Medicare program that’s not going to be around 30 years from now in form that is." Apparently, the last time he looked at the numbers was back when  he was stumping for his brother in 2004. Somebody needs to fill him in on what's been happening in the last decade.

Once again, you see the Republicans stuck in their ideological corner. Medicare costs are leveling out and there is no crisis in funding it. The people who have Medicare love it. In fact, they love it so much that they irrationally oppose anyone else having something like it to prevent their beloved program from somehow being diluted. Republicans have struggled with this problem for a long time: They just do not believe in government health care, no matter how well it works. But they had, for a time, found a way to finesse that by saying the Democrats were threatening their program by giving similar health care to other people. It was a sweet obfuscation that played into everyone's worst instincts. It was conservative perfection. Jeb, however, seems to be stuck in 2005, when George W. made his kamikaze attempt to destroy Social Security. And we know what happened in 2006. 

Has anyone told Jeb that when he left office his brother had a 25 percent approval rating?  It's probably not a great idea to remind people of why that happened.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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