Juan Williams: GOP hurts itself with Medicare attacks

Juan Williams: GOP hurts itself with Medicare attacks

It is a riddle. 

Republicans running for the party’s presidential nomination continue to push cuts in Medicare spending even as Republican voters oppose cuts in Medicare spending.

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Seventy-seven percent of Medicare beneficiaries are white and 84 percent are over 65, according to recent studies. Those older white Americans “tilt heavily Republican,” according to the Pew Research Center’s poll findings. 

So why do Republican politicians keep bringing up the idea of cutting or eliminating Medicare, a losing proposition among every voting group, including Republicans?

During last week’s CNBC debate in Colorado, Dr. Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon Carson'Housing First' approach won't solve homelessness crisis Clarence Thomas blasts his Biden-led confirmation hearings: 'The idea was to get rid of me' Affordable housing crisis demands urgent, sustained action MORE explained his objection to Medicare as a matter of conservative principle: “It was never intended that the government should be in every aspect of our lives,” he said. “This is a country that is of, for, and by the people.”

Earlier this year former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another contender for the GOP nomination, said he wants to “phase out this program” for people who have not yet reached 65 — the age for eligibility — as part of a broader effort to cut the federal budget.

Bush also favors raising the age at which Americans are eligible for Medicare benefits.

At the Colorado debate Carson, currently leading Iowa caucus polls, said he prefers a system of individual health savings accounts for citizens of all ages.

That idea allowed Carson, who is getting about 25 percent of Iowa’s senior Republican vote according to Quinnipiac polls, to downplay his earlier calls to completely wipe out the program.

“Ben wants to knock out Medicare,” Donald Trump said of his GOP primary rival during a recent appearance on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," adding: “I don’t think you’ll get away with that one.”

Carson contends most Americans will quit the current Medicare program in favor of an annual voucher worth $2,000. That seems like a tough sell to people getting health care through Medicare. After all, the government currently spends more than $10,000 annually for individuals on Medicare.

In a recent interview on "Fox News Sunday," Carson even backed off government funding a price-limited voucher program because “I don’t want a big government program.”

But who else but the government is going to fund the voucher plan?

Carson and Bush are following in the footsteps of the new House Speaker, Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDuncan Hunter pleads guilty after changing plea Trump campaign steps up attacks on Biden Trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, and hardly a voice of caution to be heard MORE (R-Wis.), the former chairman of the budget committee who once proposed turning Medicare into a voucher program indexed to inflation.

Ryan, Bush and Carson all have their eyes on cutting Medicare spending in order to reduce overall federal spending and lowering the federal debt.

But cutting Medicare will hurt a key GOP constituency – older, white voters.

A July poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 69 percent of Republicans think Medicare is “very important” and another 28 percent of GOP voters said the health insurance plan for the elderly is “somewhat important.” That adds up to an overwhelming endorsement from 97 percent of Republicans.

The same poll found 64 percent of Republicans agree that “Medicare should continue as it is today with the government guaranteeing senior health insurance and making sure that everyone can get the same defined set of benefits.”

And 41 percent of Americans, according to the Kaiser poll, want to “increase spending” on Medicare. Another 48 percent said they want to keep spending “about the same.”

Those Medicare supporters are a deep pool of voters for any political party but particularly for a party with a base of older voters. 

That said, polls do find less support for Medicare among Republicans as compared to members of other political parties.

Democrats clearly stand behind Medicare with 78 percent support in one CBS poll. Fifty-seven percent of Independents also support it. But that number dipped to 45 percent among Republicans. 

The poll reported that 40 percent of Republicans say it is “not the government’s responsibility” to ensure that the elderly have health coverage.

This is where a large dose of hypocrisy resides in the Republican body politic.

Medicare spending equal 14 percent of the federal budget, trailing only the 24 percent spent on Social Security and the 17 percent spent on the military.

Republicans favor cutting the size of the federal government by cutting spending and its regulatory reach. But there is no way to do that without curtailing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, another popular program among Republican-leaning seniors.

Among people who tell pollsters that Medicare is “not very important” or “not at all important” – 4 percent of Republicans – the Kaiser poll found that a third of them say “the federal government should have no role in the health care system at all and roughly another third say the role should be minor.”

The budget deal that passed Congress last week put in place steps to prevent increases in Medicare Part B premiums, a small benefit cap. The AARP, the lobby for senior citizens, endorsed the deal as reasonable. But Tea Party Republicans complained the cuts did not go far enough – they want more cuts to Medicare.

GOP politicians who attack Medicare have set themselves up to have a tough time with Republican voters in the 2016 elections. Imagine what Democrats can do with this: Granny is headed back to the cliff.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.