The Big Lie: Medicare is unsustainable and Republicans want to save it.
The Truth: Medicare is the most cost-effective health care system in America. Paul Ryan’s plan to turn it into a fixed benefit voucher program would void the Medicare promise and cost seniors trillions.
Less than two years after his inauguration, a charismatic Democratic president suffers a shellacking in a midterm election. A fiery Republican majority floods into the Capitol, declaring they’re determined to take their country back and attack the scourge of big government. A bold intellectual leader roundly praised by the Washington elite for his “seriousness” steps to the forefront, certain that he has answers for the American people.
His solution to budget woes? End Medicare as we know it.
The year? 1995. The Republican leader? Newt Gingrich.
“Now we don’t get rid of it in round one because we don’t think that that’s politically smart, and we don’t think that’s the right way to go through a transition,” Gingrich said, in a now famous statement replayed thousands of times during the 1996 presidential campaign. “But we believe it’s going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it — voluntarily.”
When Medicare was signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, a majority of Republicans voted against the creation of a single-payer health care plan for retirees that, combined with Social Security, promised security and a basic standard of well being for all Americans 65 and older. Generations later. Medicare remains one of the most popular government innovations in American history. A 2011 poll found that 88% of Americans believe that Medicare has been good for the country—making it nearly as popular as the tax rebates, mid-afternoon naps, and apple pie.
And it’s not only liberals who love Medicare. In 2010, in the midst of the Tea Party’s peak furor, a New York Times/CBS poll found that 62 percent of Tea Partiers answered “Yes” when asked, “Are the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare worth the costs of those programs?” 62 percent! That’s nine points higher than the percentage of Tea Partiers who described themselves as “angry” at the federal government.
Still, the Republicans cherish their fantasy that people would voluntarily want to leave Medicare — even after saving it helped Bill Clinton win an easy reelection in 1996.
Fifteen years after Newt Gingrich revealed his plan to let the original vision of Medicare wither away, another right-wing scion stepped forward to propose an updated version of the same scheme. Call it “Kill Medicare 2.010.” Like the second version of the Terminator, this futuristic destroyer was a shape shifter, determined to succeed where its predecessor had failed.
Paul Ryan—the latest GOP wunderkind to believe that all retired people are missing in life is the joy of wrangling with private insurers—is part of a new House majority that has even less shame than Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America” class. For Ryan and the so-called Tea Partiers who took 63 seats in the 2010 elections had actually won their majority by campaigning against cuts to — say it with me — Medicare!