Hands off Medicare

Less than two months ago, Democrats scored a dramatic special-election victory in a solidly Republican congressional district in New York. The defining issue? Medicare, and how Republicans were dead-set on destroying it. 

There are nearly 100 Republican-held House seats that are less conservative than the one the GOP lost in New York, and the Democratic House and Senate committees are committed to riding the Medicare issue through 2012. It’s smart politics; the issue unites the party’s progressive and conservative wings like no other. It also speaks directly to the most engaged voters: seniors. 

Republicans know this very well. Claims that Democrats were slashing Medicare were a major part of  their 2010 House victories, allowing them to win the senior vote by a dominant 59-38 margin. That was a remarkable 22-point shift from 2008, when House Democrats won seniors by a single point, 49-48. 

It didn’t take long for Republicans to shrug off campaign promises to seniors, and they’re now hell-bent on destroying Medicare in the name of “entitlement reform.” Yet the public isn’t buying their spin. Polling continues to show solid opposition to messing with Medicare.

Republicans have made their bed. Their designs on Medicare are out in the open. The electoral ramifications are clear. So how can Republicans weasel out of their predicament? 

By getting Democrats to agree to Medicare cuts. And President Obama appears willing to play into their trap.

“If you’re a progressive who cares about the integrity of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and believes that it is part of what makes our country great ... then we have an obligation to make sure that we make those changes that are required to make it sustainable over the long term,” he claimed Monday. The problem is, a “burning down the village to save it” approach to our most popular social programs hardly protects them. 

But for once, congressional Democrats are united in opposition to the president’s approach. After a closed-door meeting with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.), one attendee told the Huffington Post, “There was great frustration that the Obama administration was discussing cutting Medicare and Social Security … The general sense was that protecting Medicare and Social Security was a defining Democratic value, and that agreeing to cuts would be a gift to Republicans, if not political suicide.” 

A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee source told The Washington Post, “For the first time in the past two and a half years we have an unmitigated advantage on a single issue where our entire caucus is united. This is a case where the whole morale of our party was lifted by the fact that we were taking the fight to Republicans.” 

Even Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Nelson (D), who never passes on an opportunity to move to the right, opposes any changes to Medicare. “On one side, we see a group of lawmakers who seem focused on cuts to Medicare and Social Security in hopes of balancing the budget on the backs of seniors,” he said. “I don’t support that approach.”

By putting Medicare (and other social service cuts) on the table, Obama has gone out on quite a limb, isolating himself from his own party. Unfortunately for him, he still needs congressional Democrats to pass any grand bargain. And in this case, they’re not just opposed on policy and moral grounds, they’re focused on winning back the House and holding the Senate in 2012.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com)