Selling Abstract Theories in a Time of Personal Terror

The Republicans want to return to power. The party out of power, at the moment, always wants to return to power. And in 2010 the Republicans won back the House, leading them to claim, repeatedly, they have a mandate – they have the American people behind them – to reverse each and every thing Obama and the Democrats have accomplished since Obama took office, with his party in control of the House and Senate too. Primarily that means repeal of the healthcare reform stuff – all of it – and repeal of the Dodd-Frank bill restarting a hint of regulation of the securities and banking industries. And they want to kill the new consumer protection agency, the one to watch out for deception in mortgage lending and all sorts of loans, along with its open and accessible database of fraudulent and underhanded practices, listing those who have been convicted of scamming the public. That sort of thing kills growth, as business would have to worry about even more things than they worry about now. And at the state level there’s all the anti-union stuff, almost as if the basic idea there being that greedy American workers – a spoiled lot – demand to be paid far too much, and demand stuff about working conditions and benefits – and things would be far better if workers agreed to low pay, with ongoing regular pay cuts, regularly reducing their salary, and agreed to progressively fewer benefits, and would stop bitching about their working conditions. If American workers could only be convinced to accept less, well, businesses in America would really thrive once again. We’d be on the road to recovery.

Needless to say, much of this is rather unpopular. The idea of everyone having access to some form of healthcare, without being told you cannot be insured because you had the hives one Thursday in 1981, or that your insurance policy is now null and void when the medical attention you need looks pretty expensive, seems a good idea to most people – even if getting there is confusing and contentious. The general idea isn’t that bad – people get it. And most everyone has the sense that lax or absent regulation of the securities and banking industries really didn’t work out that well as the last decade came to a close. Leaving the Wall Street crowd entirely free to do what they will – whatever it is – now seems like a bad idea. But of course the Republican counterargument is that you don’t want to cripple the creativity that leads to real growth and vast new wealth, at least for some – you don’t want to throw sand in the gears of the economy, or something like that. Any regulation is sand, of course.

And having an agency that tracks just who is scamming whom seems useful to many people, even as they listen to the Republican argument that such a thing just kills business in the country. Why would you, as a business, care at all, if you are not scamming anyone? And all that anti-union stuff, about how the problem with America is really all the workers in the nation wanting to at least keep the wages and benefits they had last week, runs into another problem. There are, in America, far more workers than business owners, and they vote. And for most American workers, up through the middle class, wages have been absolutely flat for a decade, as the cost of everything has risen. Yeah, you can see what the Republicans are selling here – and they do have a point – but you’re getting killed, economically. For the blue-collar Rush Limbaugh Republican, driving home from work on the assembly line, which may soon move to Mexico, there may be some internal conflict. You’re probably not saying damn, I’m so absurdly greedy, and that’s the problem with America. All this might be a bit uncomfortable for you.

And then there’s the Paul Ryan budget, and all Republicans are on board with that. But the lynchpin of the whole thing is the Medicare proposal – change that program so no one’s actual care is paid for at all, but that everyone gets a voucher, which shrinks in value every year, to buy private insurance from the for-profit industry, with the notion that with all that voucher money floating around someone in that industry will want to insure those over sixty-five, as they age and grow infirm. Let the market work. So let those over sixty-five get online and see if anyone will sell them insurance, and see how far that voucher will go.

Of course this is not popular. People do seem to recall, even if vaguely, that Medicare itself was a response to the fact no insurance company in its right mind would sell health insurance to anyone over sixty-five. That’s nuts – you cannot make money that way, for obvious actuarial reasons. No one insures poor risks. So we got Medicare – everyone, when they worked, chipped in, so that when your working days were over, and no insurance company would touch you with a ten foot pole, you’d be able to see a doctor when something went wrong, and receive care. Yeah, that makes the government not much more than an insurance company with an army, as Paul Krugman once put it, but for most Americans this kept the terror of aging at bay. Do the Republicans want to have that terror return, as you stare at the voucher slip in your hand, sitting at the grandkid’s computer, and try to find someone who will insure you for anything more than periodic flatulence? What are these guys thinking?

Well, they say if you’re nearing the big sixty-five nothing will change for you. But see Mark Schmitt on the implications of the key detail of this plan that actually promises to cut off anyone under fifty-four from Medicare:

If there was ever going to be a generational war in this country, that high school class of ’74 would be its Mason-Dixon Line. It’s the moment when Bill Clinton’s promise – “if you work hard and play by the rules you’ll get ahead” – began to lose its value. Today’s seniors and near-seniors spent much of their working lives in that postwar world, with their incomes rising, investments gaining, their health increasingly secure, and their retirements predictable. Everyone 55 and younger spent his or her entire working life in an economy where all those trends had stalled or reversed. To borrow former White House economist Jared Bernstein’s phrase, it was the “You’re On Your Own” economy. Finally, those 55-year-olds are spending several of what should be their peak earning years, years when they should be salting away money in their 401(k)’s and IRAs, in a period of deep recession and very slow recovery.

The Ryan plan, in other words, delivers to the older generation exactly what they’ve had all their lives – secure and predictable benefits – and to the next generation, more of what they’ve known – insecurity and risk.

It’s hardly the first generational fight the GOP has started. The previous one was just last fall, when they campaigned for Medicare, and against the $500 billion in cuts (mostly by getting rid of the overgenerous subsidies to private insurers in an experimental program) passed as part of the Affordable Care Act. With an off-year electorate that was overwhelmingly older, they could put all their bets on the older side, knowing that seniors would see little benefit from the Affordable Care Act and were naturally worried about any change to the health system they enjoyed.

That’s a lot to think about. There are two Americas now – that’s what the Republicans actually posit. Today’s seniors and near-seniors live in the old America, where there is security and prosperity and shared burdens and cooperation and community and all that. Things are predictable in that America. And anyone under fifty-five lives in the America of perpetual insecurity and risk, and terror of what could happen next, as nothing is predictable. They call it freedom – heady stuff – but that may be a hard sell. You’re on your own and no institution of any kind, much less the government, will ever be there to help you or to back you up at all. Isn’t it wonderful?

Hey, that’s what they’re selling. And Digby comments:

I wish I knew why the GOP has suddenly gone kamikaze on this Ryan plan, but I guess I don’t care. They’ve been so close to the edge of insanity for so long now that it’s a good thing for the country if they self-immolate before they are able to somehow seize total power again.

But it really can’t be overstated just how self-destructive this attack on Medicare really is, on so many levels. It’s bad on the politics and on the merits, of course. But ask yourself why a political party would spend many, many millions of dollars to spread a message that a very popular program among their most valuable constituency is in danger from their opponents as the Republicans did last November – and then allow their opponents to piggyback on it immediately and turn it back on them?

Yes, they hit Obama’s healthcare plan hard on its big Medicare cuts – six hundred million gone. But it wasn’t really gone. It was moving that money from Medicare Advantage – paying the big insurance companies to offer Medicare coverage with some frills, and a twelve percent administrative overhead that went to their profits – to regular old Medicare, where the administrative costs run about two percent and make no private parties rich. There was no cut. But you could sort of say there was, and the Republicans did say that. And it worked. No one was all that picky about just what Medicare Advantage was.

But Digby notes this just got weird:

Political messaging is like an annoying jingle. Even if you hate it (and I think we all hate most of them) you absorb it over time and many people eventually come to see it as simple conventional wisdom. In fact, sadly, that accounts for much of our fellow citizens’ political education. When a party spends many millions selling a message, it’s an investment. That’s why I’m so gobsmacked that the GOP has been so cloddish and inept with this one. It made sense for them to demagogue health care by using the Medicare cuts – their only growing constituency at the moment is among those over sixty. But it was a change for them requiring some commitment and finesse. After all, they have historically been enemies of Medicare and haven’t built up any trust among the public. So logic said that they would have to keep Medicare and Social Security off the table and plan a much longer term strategy to convince seniors that they were their party. It was always going to be a delicate bit of political chicanery, but what choice did they have? They are in a terrible demographic bind.

So why would they spend millions to persuade seniors that they would protect them from the horrible Democrats who had, without warning, decided to abandon them and then drop Ryan’s dystopian plan from hell and allow the Democrats to build on it? Even after serious blowback from the public they have persisted – Newtie’s little ritual humiliation tour last week is just the latest example. (I suppose that could be because they are afraid of Newt having the winning message in the primaries and the last thing they want is for him to be the nomination. But I doubt it.)

Yes, Newt Gingrich said that Ryan plan for Medicare was radical social engineering and he’d have none of it, and then his party turned on him and he said he didn’t mean Ryan really, but he apologized to Ryan anyway, and then said anyone who quoted him verbatim on what he had said in the first place would be lying, and that would be unfair and wrong and so on. Kaiser Health News has the details of all that – it was a strange business.

But the Republicans are all in on The Ryan Plan – perhaps it should be in all caps – and they certainly aren’t backing away, and Digby thinks that the Democrats can ride this thing all the way to 2012:

After all, they have more than sixty years of credibility on the issue to back them up. Indeed, the Republicans have actually managed to stiffen the Dems’ spines on protecting Social Security and Medicare and may have finally taken them off the table for the time being with their ineptitude. What a mistake.

Perhaps the Republicans had to go completely over the cliff before they could realize they have become too extreme even for a nation that has developed a tremendous appetite for right wing fantasy and corporate advertising. It’s a good thing for the country if they shoot the moon and lose very big. But it’s dangerous too. You never know what might happen and if they get validated again in 2012 as they did in 2010, we have a major, major problem on our hands.

But right now, it’s looking as if the GOP has made a catastrophic political miscalculation with Ryan.

And up in New York, south of Buffalo, there’s NY-26 and its special election for its open House seat, showing that Medicare is killing the Republican and the Tea party in a race they were winning until a week ago. That congressional district has been Republican forever, and now the Democrat is pulling away, as Slate’s David Weigel notes:

One reason for Hochul’s surge: In the wake of the killing of OBL, Barack Obama’s approval in the district has bumped up to 48 percent. That’s about as much support as he won in 2008. Another, bigger reason: Medicare. A full 21 percent of voters say Medicare’s their top issue, and Hochul leads by 29 points with those voters. Another source of strength for Democrats: Among voters who don’t have jobs, Hochul leads by 7 points.

Yeah, there is that too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Republicans can scream all they want about the deficit, and about the evil of consumer protection agencies, and about the evil of regulating the securities industry, with side trips into the issues around abortion and gays in the military and gay marriage and who really loves Israel the most, and why we all have a right to own an assault rifle, and also a constitutional right to buy incandescent light bulbs, not those new twisty things – but more than fifteen million people here are out of work. Many have been out of work for a year or more and will never work again, and those with jobs are worried sick they may be next, and nobody’s talking about that at all. The Republicans have successfully shifted the talk away from that. But that doesn’t make it go away. What’s the strategy here? If we just don’t talk about it, at all, people will forget they’re worried sick, and rather terrified?

Digby suggests that is one really stupid strategy:

It’s really going to be who gets to keep the focus on the economy, on jobs and growth. But first, whether it’s the president or John Boehner, the first one to put something on the table called a strategy for jobs and growth and how we’re going to compete with China is going to win.

I don’t think anyone with any sense thought they’d go with budget slashing and deficit reduction, abstractions in a world filled with real problems. It will likely have a salutary effect on the long term goal of crippling government. (After all, the Democrats seem to be willing to do some serious cutting themselves – and tax hikes are still considered something akin to child molestation.) But the political damage for the Republicans, in both the long and short term, could be severe.

And here is her final assessment:

I think we’re seeing the decadence and delusion of the end stages of a successful political movement. They pretty much fulfilled the corporate wish list. The only things they haven’t accomplished are the loony wingnut agenda items, which until now they’ve managed to keep at arm’s length, only giving little bits when necessary to keep the rubes on board. Maybe they just have nothing left to do.

Maybe so – but stepping back and considering the policies and positions they are espousing – what they are selling – they could be facing a paucity of buyers. You don’t sell abstract theories about the proper nature of government, and how much everyone can do without, like Medicare, in a time of personal terror after all. That only increases the terror. You sell the idea that you’ll fix things, and ease the growing panic everyone is feeling.

But maybe they have something else in mind. God only knows what it could be. It seems to have nothing to do with returning to power.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Medicare and Medicaid, Paul Ryan Budget, Political Purity, Political Underdogs, Republican Framing Devices, Republican Idealistic Theory and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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