President Clinton's sweeping proposal to provide Medicare prescription drug coverage for the nation's 36 million senior citizens is a softball pitch that courageous Republicans like Ronald Reagan would have hammered out of the park.
The issue, after all, is tailor-made for the GOP - one that draws a sharp line of delineation between the "cradle-to-grave" welfare state and reforms that emphasize the dignity of individuals exercising their right of free choice.
Yet, President Clinton has demagogued it on national television, biting his lip and holding back tears, while demanding Republicans embrace his crusade "to save the elderly."
Republicans have developed an almost Pavlovian response to Presidential Weeping - they recoil in fear. Experience has taught them that Presidential Weeping is a precursor to political attacks, vilification in the media and general political pain.
So why is including prescription drug coverage in Medicare reforms a great Republican issue? Among the most salient reasons:
1) The President's plan would wreak havoc with a health care system that may need fine tuning, but remains the best in the world. That's probably why he has only announced he "has a plan" and hasn't actually put it into legislative language. Patients' rights groups, business groups and seniors' groups all oppose the President's plan. And for good reason. The Clinton plan would put 80% of Medicare beneficiaries (seniors and disabled) into a government-run monopoly for their prescription drugs on day one. Talk to your pollsters, Republicans! Today's seniors have had 65 years of dealing with federal bureaucrats, and most find the prospect revolting.
2) Other Democratic alternatives are worse and you can say so. The Democrats are trumpeting the so-called "Tom's of Maine" bill as a solution for seniors. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Allen (D-ME), would mandate that drug companies sell drugs to individual pharmacies at the same price they sell to their largest customers, including health plans. Hey guys, nothing in this bill promises seniors a penny of savings. And for pharmacies and for seniors with existing coverage (the ones who get their drugs from the largest customers mentioned above) their costs could actually go up. When was the last time an arbitrary set of government price controls had their intended effect and actually lowered prices? Market competition and consumer choice is the best way to control prices. Even during World War II, when patriotism flourished, black markets in gasoline and sugar, cigarettes and nylons produced land-office sales.
3) Republicans can reclaim the mantle of being "the responsible party." Most seniors have drug coverage and don't want to get pushed out of it into a government plan. The poorest seniors already get Medicaid, so they are not the problem. Americans don't want to bankrupt Medicare by trying to force everyone into one big government-run plan. They prefer a common-sense solution that preserves private market choices and helps those without coverage get the same kind of good private coverage that other seniors have.
4) You can find common ground to cooperate with your Democratic
colleagues on Capitol Hill. The President created a bipartisan
Medicare commission to deal with this issue, but when he didn't
like the result he yanked his support and started from scratch
with an entirely partisan approach. The majority recommendations
of that committee are now embodied in the Breaux-Kerrey-Frist
proposal. Senators Breaux (LA) and Kerrey (NE) are respected
Democrats who, with help, will get significant support from other
Democratic moderates. Few Democrats want to be labeled obstructionist
because they accepted Clinton's political knavery and turned their
backs on an opportunity for badly needed reforms.
So as you open the second session of the 106th Congress, remember this: Presidential Weeping does not have to spell disaster for Republicans. In this case, in fact, it only spells opportunity. Private choices, fiscal responsibility, choice and competition, less bureaucracy - these are all Republican themes and ones you can and should honestly use in this debate.
Clinton and his allies have openly admitted that they want
a partisan food fight. Don't give it to them. Take the high
ground, talk policy and at the end of the day the only Presidential
Weeping will be because the American people once again reject
a big-government approach to health care.
Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.