Bungled Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit Creates Opening for Dems
by Jonathan Singer, Sun Jan 22, 2006 at 01:24:38 PM EST
During his reelection bid in 2004, President Bush did surprisingly well among older voters, outpolling John Kerry by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin among voters over the age of 60. This mark represented a seven-point swing for Bush between 2000 and 2004, the largest such swing among any age group.
Bush's performance among older voters was no doubt affected by the high expectations for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which was rammed through the Republican House during an unprecedented three hour vote. For the first time in nearly four decades, a President had been able to create a new entitlement program -- and a much-needed one, at that.
But the Republican prescription drug benefit has not met expectations -- not by any stretch of the imagination. Although prescient Democrats warned that the program would not achieve what it sought to, that it was merely an expensive gift to the pharmaceutical lobby, most Americans -- particularly older Americans -- seemed willing to give the President and his party the benefit of the doubt. Now, these same Americans are coming to terms with just how cumbersome this Republican program is.
In the latest poll commissioned by the Associated Press, Ipsos Public Affairs found that a majority of Americans -- and an overwhelming majority of older Americans -- find the program to be puzzling. Specifically, 52 percent of all Americans and fully two-thirds of older Americans find the program "confusing" and "tough to understand." Even before the implementation of the benefit began, Pew found less than majority support for the program, and a particularly sharp decline in approval for the program among Republicans. The headline of Janet Hook's Los Angeles Times article from Saturday perhaps sums it up the best: "Medicare Drug Program May Harm, Not Help, GOP."
So where does this leave the Democrats? There are certainly many Americans unpleased with the Republican prescription drug benefit, but their confusion will not necessarily lead them to vote Democrat in November -- or even not vote Republican.
The Democrats must come up with at least a temporary solution to the Medicare problem. It need not be a panacea for all of the issues faced by the entitlement program, but the key is keeping the plan simple and easy to understand.
If older voters face a choice between a Republican program that is difficult to understand and a Democratic plan that is significantly clearer (not to mention more effective), there is a real possibility that they will come back to the Democratic camp in November after straying in 2004. What's more, their baby boomer children, many of whom are no doubt helping their parents navigate this complicated program, might also be persuaded to shift their allegiance to the Democrats this fall (they, too, supported Bush in 2004, though by a narrower margin).
The potential benefits for the Democrats are immense, so the time is now to begin coalescing around a few ideas (and I do mean just a few) that would make the prescription drug benefit more accessible and effective and to start clearly articulating these ideas to voters around the country.