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Commentary: Both parties wrong on spending

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Obama administration mishandled health debate
  • He says president hasn't been clear on what he wants or how to pay for it
  • He says Republicans blame Obama for spending without admitting their own role
  • Navarrette: Republicans botched efforts to reform Social Security
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr., a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com, is the author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano." Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says Obama mishandled health care and GOP has been hypocritical about government's role.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says Obama mishandled health care and GOP has been hypocritical about government's role.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- A deadline set by a Democratic White House for the passage of a health care reform bill came and went, and a Democratic-controlled Congress just shrugged. Congress adjourns Friday for August recess without passing a bill. And the debate is on life support.

It doesn't help that Americans send mixed signals. They demand that government not interfere with the relationship between individuals and their doctors. But, if government does interfere, they say, then can it lower costs by controlling what doctors charge individuals?

Hecklers at town hall meetings with legislators and administration officials demand that government stay out of the health care business but also not touch Medicare -- a prime example of government being in the health care business.

Still, the Obama administration has mishandled this issue -- badly. A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 50 percent of Americans disapprove of the way President Obama is handling health care policy, while only 44 percent approve. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 46 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handing of health care compared to 41 percent who approved.

What went wrong? Just about everything.

• The administration was too quick to suggest it could get this reform through Congress without Republican support, overlooking the not-insignificant fact that it hadn't locked up the backing of Blue Dog Democrats. Lately, it's been those conservative Democrats, concerned about the cost of the program, who have been giving the White House heartburn.

• Despite how White House press secretary Robert Gibbs is always insisting to reporters that "the president has been very clear" about this or that, the fact is that President Obama has not been clear enough about precisely what he wants and exactly what it will cost Americans in higher taxes.

• After the government's takeover of General Motors and bailout of the banking industry, the idea of the government push into health care reform feeds the narrative that Obama is doing too much, too fast and grabbing too much power while sticking average Americans with a bill that will be way too high.

Apparently, as concerned as Americans are about rising costs or losing their health insurance, they're more afraid of how a government takeover would affect their existing health care. Although, in another mixed message, there does seem to be strong public support for an alternative to private insurance -- a new Quinnipiac University poll found 62 percent of respondents favor a public insurance option.

Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to milk the fear of government involvement for all it's worth. They're talking about how wrong it is to stick future generations with staggering debt, huge budget deficits, and underfunded mandates. When the Congressional Budget Office projected recently that the health care bill in the Senate Finance Committee would cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years, the GOP claimed it was unfair to lay that bill on future generations.

Absolutely right. Glad to hear it. It's just too bad Republicans don't feel the same way about another bill yet to be paid. For more than 10 years, I've written about the need to fix one of America's most beloved, and yet most expensive, entitlement programs: Social Security. It's a classic inter-generational transfer of wealth.

People tell themselves that, when they retire, they'll collect what they've contributed. The truth is that retirees collect money put there by current generations of workers who pay for previous ones.

It's been clear for some time that the burden of keeping 69 million baby boomers in a comfy retirement will crush younger workers -- the folks now in their teens, twenties and thirties. In 1946, the cost of supporting one retiree was shared between 42 workers. Soon, it'll be just two workers supporting each retiree.

The system could be bleeding red ink as early as 2016, when, according to experts, more will be going out in benefits than coming in as payroll taxes. That means that either taxes will go up or the system will go broke.

Yet when President Bush was elected in 2000 and inherited a budget surplus, instead of using that money to beef up Social Security, Bush blew it on tax cuts to please the Republican base.

Later, at the start of his second term, when Bush proposed saving Social Security with private accounts and reductions in benefits, he didn't get much help from members of his own party. Republicans were terrified of being perceived as being hostile to the elderly, a politically powerful demographic that knows its way to the polling booth. Eventually, the reform effort died. And the GOP wasn't exactly sad to see it go.

Now, in opposing "Obamacare," Republicans glibly warn that we have to be wary of the financial obligations we're leaving to future generations.

You don't say.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

All About Barack ObamaSocial Security AdministrationHealth Care Policy

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