The Medicare food fight


MINNIE BING, a retired bookkeeper, offered a radical suggestion the other night at a town meeting on Medicare: Quit the partisan bickering. "It's going to take a lot of work, Republicans and Democrats," she told Rep. Roger Wicker, the freshman Republican who represents this town just south of Memphis. "We have to be one family, not a split family."

As Congress returns to work this week, there is no sign that either party is listening to voters like Minnie Bing. Instead, they are both running advertising campaigns -- the Democrats on TV, the Republicans on radio -- that blame the other side for abandoning Medicare. What should be a constructive search for the "common ground" Bill Clinton likes to talk about has turned into a verbal food fight of name-calling and scare-mongering. No wonder public disgust with politics continues to soar.

Even some politicians are starting to gag. When Bill Bradley announced his retirement from the Senate he declared: "In growing numbers, people have lost faith in the political process." The University of Michigan has for many years asked voters to rate their trust in government, and their findings support Mr. Bradley's assertion. In their latest survey, 78 percent were negative toward government, only 21 percent positive. Thirty years ago the figures were almost exactly reversed.

The Medicare debate helps explain why that confidence is eroding so rapidly. To their credit, the Republicans are at least admitting that costs need to be brought under control. Their budget assumes a reduction of $270 billion below projected spending rates over the next seven years. But their courage quickly curdles when it comes to specifics.

Over and over, Mr. Wicker insisted that these massive reductions could be made painlessly: no benefits cuts, no fee increases, nothing but a more efficient system created by the magic of greater competition and freer markets. "The only way that Medicare will be cut," he shouted, "is over my dead body."

His assurances were greeted, to put it gently, with considerable skepticism. It turns out the people of Southaven can add. "I don't see where you can balance the books," said one voter. "If fees are not raised, where is the money going to come from?"

That is a question that Mr. Wicker and his fellow Republicans can't answer. Instead, they fall back on word games. Medicare spending will actually increase over current levels, they say, so nothing is being "cut." But if costs go up 10 percent a year, and available funds go up 5 percent, something has to give somewhere.

This refusal to confront fiscal reality sounds very much like 1980, when Ronald Reagan insisted he could increase defense spending, cut taxes and still reduce the deficit. The result of that self-delusion was trillions of dollars in additional debt. But in 1995, the Democrats are behaving as badly as the Republicans. Maybe worse. Many of them won't even acknowledge the crisis in Medicare and got furious with Bill Clinton when he tried to be responsible and discuss the issue frankly. Rep. Sam Gibbons, ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, recently announced that the system is "fiscally sound." This in the face of a report, signed by three Clinton cabinet members, that Medicare will go bankrupt in seven years if current trends continue.

If the Republicans are re-running 1980, the Democrats are re-running 1982, the year they defeated 26 GOP House members by accusing the Republicans of being soft on Social Security. In a recent newsletter Rep. Martin Frost, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, described Medicare as "a great opportunity for Democratic candidates in 1996." All politics. Not a word about the substance of the problem. Privately, Democratic leaders say they'll come up with a "minimal" proposal to save the system, but it won't be serious. Their real aim is to let the Republicans take the heat. Alone.

The tactic might work. Seniors are the last voters left who remember the Depression and the New Deal, and perhaps they can be frightened -- one last time -- by the old Democratic rhetoric of us vs. them, rich vs. poor. Mr. Frost cites a USA Today poll in which seniors now favor Democrats by 59 to 31; last year they were pro-Republican by 51 to 48.

But even if this approach succeeds politically, it is a sterile and short-sighted argument. Both parties are treating the voters like children. Both are saying: There is a free lunch, and the other party is trying to steal it from you. Here's a novel idea: Why don't the politicians try telling the truth about Medicare. They might even regain some of the trust they have squandered.

Cokie Roberts is an ABC news commentator and Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.

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