‘Mediscare’: the US politics of fear

The debate over Medicare shows that both Republicans and Democrats now rely on panic over principle.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

The Democrats recently scored an important upset victory in a special election in upstate New York. Special elections can be one-off events with no wider meaning, but the result from this vote has sparked a heated slanging match between the two main parties, with accusations and counter-accusations of the use of so-called scare tactics.

The contest took place in New York’s 26th congressional district, which encompasses the upstate territory between Buffalo and Rochester. Republicans were supposed to be on the upswing since the midterm elections held just six months ago, and the seat has been Republican since the 1960s. But Democrat Kathy Hochul won with 47 per cent of the vote, ahead of Republican Jane Corwin, who received 42 per cent.

Republicans offered many excuses for their loss. One was that independent Tea Party candidate Jack Davis took away votes from Corwin – but polls showed that many of those voters’ second choice was Hochul. Another was that the Republicans were tarnished by the fact that the prior incumbent, Christopher Lee, was forced to resign after he emailed a shirtless photograph to a woman he was trying to woo over the internet – but that was in fact a complete non-issue for voters.

No, the real focal point was Medicare, and specifically the Republican proposals to overhaul the federal government health programme put forward by Representative Paul Ryan for the 2012 budget. Hochul ran night and day on the issue, and her appeal clearly resonated. But many Republicans don’t want to face up to the fact that their proposals are very unpopular.

Ryan blamed the Democrats’ willingness to ‘shamelessly distort and demagogue the issue, trying to scare seniors to win the election’ (by the way, when did ‘demagogue’ become a verb?). Indeed, Republicans have given the name ‘Mediscare’ to describe the Democrats’ tactics. And over the past week they’ve made some headway in the media with their claims that the Democrats are misleading the public and trying to scare people.

These yelps of ‘no fair’ are rich coming from Republican politicians. They themselves tried to whip up fear last year when they said the Obama proposals on Medicare would institute ‘death panels’.

It is true that some Democrats have gone overboard. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said the Ryan plan would allow insurance companies to deny coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions, and that is false. There is also a TV ad, funded by Democratic Party supporters, that shows a granny in a wheelchair being pushed over a cliff (very subtle).

But the Democrats’ main arguments against the Ryan Medicare proposal are legitimate, and not blatant scaremongering. And, more importantly, voters can see right through the Ryan plan – it is not as if they’ve needed the Democrats to point out that it is a major overhaul of a popular health programme.

The Ryan plan would remove a basic provision of Medicare: government-provided healthcare to senior citizens. Ryan complains when critics say he would ‘dismantle’ Medicare, but switching from government provision to private provision does change the essential feature of the programme. His plan would provide ‘premium support’ so seniors could buy private-sector insurance with government funds. The catch is that these premiums would rise only in line with overall inflation, not healthcare inflation, which has risen more rapidly. Ryan and the Republicans argue that the market will drive down costs, but few are willing to take that on faith.

The special election result in New York’s 26th district shows that the Republicans have misread the political situation fundamentally. After losing to Obama and the Democrats in 2008, the party was in disarray. Unsure of how to resurrect themselves, they latched on to a small, loose coalition of older Americans, which we now call the Tea Party. This ‘party’ seemed to offer a path for Republicans to return to their so-called philosophical roots as low-tax and low-spend. Media interest – fuelled, ironically, more by liberals than conservatives – also made the movement appear dynamic. With the focus in the 2010 midterms on the Democrats, who seemed unable to address the economy, the Republicans made big gains, which only seemed to encourage them. Their campaigns talked constantly about the dangers of the growing debt.

But the Republicans’ supposed dynamism has been, in reality, shallow. Many voters plumped for Republicans last November because they were fed up with the Democrats. And the Tea Party and rank-and-file Republicans were never really serious about deficit reduction. For them, the concept was an abstract one, more a symbolic representation of what they believe is national decline. That’s why, in the summer of 2009, many Tea Party senior-citizen protesters could shout ‘hands off my Medicare’ at town halls, and feel no sense of contradiction. Whenever specific cuts are mentioned – especially those affecting seniors – the Tea Party doesn’t want to hear.

The Republican leadership thought they were on to a winner with their spending cuts, including the Medicare plan. The Ayn Rand devotee Ryan believed he was ushering in a new era of less government. But now many of his fellow Republicans are getting cold feet. Newt Gingrich was castigated for labelling the Ryan proposals ‘right-wing social engineering’, but he spoke something that many Republicans actually believe (Gingrich was later forced to recant). It is noticeable that none of the putative Republican candidates for President has embraced the Ryan plan.

Following the upstate New York special election, the Democrats believe they have momentum on their side and an issue that will bring them success in 2012. What’s noticeable, however, is how conservative their approach is. The Democrats may not be engaging in ‘Mediscare’, as Republicans allege, but their approach is negative and fear-ridden: ‘hold on to what you’ve got’ is their essential message.

Most Democratic politicians, in fact, believe that cuts to Medicare are necessary. There is a cross-party consensus that ‘entitlements’ like Medicare and social security are unsustainable, even though voters continue to show strong support for these programmes. The difference between the parties has more to do with the form: Democrats want to maintain Medicare as a government-provided programme, but reduce benefits. But they aren’t talking about that right now – they’re just laying low and watching the Republicans squirm.

Moreover, the Democrats have no answer for ever-rising healthcare costs. The US spends much more on health than other countries, but the quality of care is either inferior or similar (depending on the area). The Obama 2010 health bill, while criticised as being too ‘radical’, was in fact minimalist, and did not address this fundamental problem.

Both parties are competing on the basis of fear. The Republicans say we should worry about the debt exploding. The Democrats say we should worry that the Republicans will destroy Americans’ health security. Neither offers a real solution to healthcare, nor a positive vision of the future.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics USA


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