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Republicans' Medicare blunder

By Michael Wolraich, Special to CNN
  • Michael Wolraich: Americans telling GOP lawmakers they don't like plan for Medicare cuts
  • But Rep. Barletta said people relieved to hear plan doesn't affect those over 55, he says
  • Wolraich: This shows Americans prefer their socialized medicine
  • Wolraich: Americans won't buy losing something while someone else (tax cuts for rich) gains

Editor's note: Michael Wolraich is a founder of the liberal political blog and the author of "Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual."

(CNN) -- In town hall meetings being held across the country during Congress' two-week recess, American citizens are filling the ears of Republican legislators with objections to the party's budget plan, particularly proposed changes to Medicare that would replace direct coverage with subsidies for private insurance.

Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pennsylvania, quoted in a New York Times article Tuesday, tried to play down the objections, but his explanation inadvertently exposed the flaw in his party's political strategy.

"I am not sensing the general public is angered over Medicare reform," he insisted. "When I explain that people over 55 are not affected there is almost a sigh of relief."

In other words, Barletta believes his constituents will only tolerate "reform" that does not personally affect them.

This offhand acknowledgement belies the obvious truth that Republicans are loath to admit: Americans actually like their supposedly bloated, inefficient, bureaucratic, government health insurance, and they do not trust for-profit insurance companies to do it better. They like their socialized medicine so much that they're willing to give hell to anyone who threatens to take it away.

The over-55 proviso only serves to validate citizens' objections. Even if the exception pacifies seniors, by emphasizing it Republicans implicitly acknowledge that the proposed subsidy plan is not equivalent to Medicare as we know it. They underscore the fact that Americans under 55 will get screwed.

If Republicans had been honest about their message of shared sacrifice to address the national debt, they might have had a shot. But in combining Medicare cuts with tax breaks for the rich, they have run afoul of the most basic rule of democratic politics: People vote for themselves. They cannot bear for something they value to be taken away and given to someone else.

A few weeks ago, Republicans' attempts to gut federal programs like Head Start and Planned Parenthood provoked little outrage from the average American voter. That's because most Americans do not perceive themselves to benefit from the programs. Similarly, President George W. Bush's attempt to slash Medicaid while extending tax cuts for the rich did not ignite much town hall fervor, because Medicaid assists people below the poverty line.

In a battle for resources between the rich and poor, middle-class Americans might take one side or the other, but they won't shout at town hall meetings because they view themselves as neither rich nor poor; they have no dog in the fight.

But Medicare belongs to all Americans. Most of us who do not have it now are counting on its support in our old age. When Republicans proposed to cut Medicare while reducing taxes for the rich, they expressed intent to take something away from us and give it to the other guy. And so, the Republican budget proposal is already a dead plan walking.

There is some poetic justice in the Republicans' miscalculation. Ever since President Reagan, they have exploited Americans' aversion to sacrifice for someone else's sake by arguing that middle-class taxes benefit the allegedly undeserving poor.

But now that Republicans have set their sights on Medicare, the great white whale of the welfare state, they have discovered that Americans still oppose sacrifice for someone else's sake, especially the sake of the undeserving rich.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Wolraich.