Drug benefit is popular, but not touted much by GOP

Republican lawmakers looking to change the subject from unfavorable issues such as the war in Iraq have by and large avoided claiming credit for what the White House views as one of the GOP majority’s signature domestic-policy accomplishments: the Medicare prescription-drug benefit.

President Bush and congressional leaders such as House Majority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) have urged GOP incumbents to shift the electoral debate toward matters that they say demonstrate the effectiveness of Republican-controlled government.

But few candidates have actively highlighted their support for Part D, which has been under constant Democratic fire. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has vowed to begin the process of altering the program within the first 100 hours of the next Congress if her party takes control of the House.

Democrats have maintained their drumbeat of criticism of Part D — frequently referring to it as a “disaster” — even as the program appears to have stabilized from significant logistical problems during its rollout in January.

The program has proved popular with those beneficiaries who have joined the Part D program, according to numerous opinion polls.

J.D. Power and Associates released survey findings in September showing 75 percent of Part D enrollees were satisfied with their benefits. This week, the AARP, which endorsed the bill to create the program, issued survey results showing that 48 percent of voters age 42 and older think the program is good for senior citizens, compared with 26 percent who think it’s bad.

Bush, Boehner and other Republican message-makers have responded sharply to Democratic criticisms, pointing to such polls and the millions of people newly receiving drug coverage under the program.

But except for the administration, the GOP has been mostly reactive to Democratic assaults rather than aggressive.

Republican campaign sources identified some exceptions on the campaign trail, such as GOP Reps. Nancy Johnson (Conn.) and Clay Shaw (Fla.), and GOP Sens. Jim Talent (Mo.) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.). Each lawmaker is locked in competitive reelection battles against opponents who have targeted them for their roles in drafting the Medicare drug bill.

Nationally, however, the Republican election effort has shied away from Medicare Part D. Neither the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the National Republican Senatorial Committee nor the Republican National Committee has run any advertisements highlighting the program this year, spokespeople for the organizations said.

While the national campaign operations have chosen not to highlight Part D, big business has. Between July and September, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce paid for television spots targeting eight Senate races and 26 House races. The advertisements praised lawmakers by name, including some Democrats, for their votes in favor of the bill that created Part D.

In 2003, Bush and the congressional Republican leadership cajoled an often recalcitrant rank-and-file to support the legislation to create the drug program with promises that tackling the potent Medicare issue would win them strengthened support among the politically motivated older voting bloc.

The president reiterated this argument last month. “My own view is our candidates and the people who voted for this ought to be out there traveling to senior centers all over their districts and their state, saying, ‘Look what we did,’” Bush remarked on Oct. 20, the AP reported.

One of the central figures in the creation of the program agrees. “They’re crazy not to take credit for it,” said former Medicare chief Tom Scully, who added, “It’s a huge positive in my opinion.” Scully left the administration three years ago and now works as a lobbyist at Alston and Bird and is a partner at the New York-based investment firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson and Stowe.

One Republican campaign operative denied that GOP candidates would not benefit from Part D this year. “Just because it’s not a central theme in every race … doesn’t mean it’s not a political winner,” said NRCC spokesman Ed Patru.

Scully suggested that Republican candidates simply are not comfortable taking credit for an expansion of an already large entitlement program. “Republicans traditionally are fearful of talking about Medicare,” he said.

Moreover, Scully said, the low-income people who stand to benefit the most from the program do not usually support Republican candidates.

The program may be popular with Medicare beneficiaries, but it is not with segments of the GOP. Fiscal conservatives in particular were displeased that Republicans enacted the largest entitlement-program expansion since Medicare itself was created during the Johnson administration.

The measure passed the House over the objections of 25 Republicans who voted against it and with the support of at least a handful who gritted their teeth when voting for it.

The electoral atmosphere also simply is not conducive to Republicans touting their accomplishments, said GOP pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.

Furthermore, Part D does not appear poised to play a significant role in voters’ decision-making this year, McInturff said. The public’s reaction to the drug benefit has been “muted” and the issue has made only a “very modest” impression on voters younger than 65 years old, he said.