I'm not usually a political strategist – or even a very partisan guy (honest!) -but someone needs to call a time-out and ask if Democrats know what they're doing in helping George Bush add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare this summer.
Let me be clear: I'm not questioning whether we need to add such a benefit to Medicare. We do. But the current bills wouldn't start the new benefit until at least 2006. Any law passed this summer is mostly about Bush positioning himself and his party for the 2004 election. He understands this even if Democrats don't.
As can never be said often enough, there are two overarching premises Democrats must explode to beat Bush in 2004.
The first is the notion that our coming decades-long fight against terrorism is a "war." Out of fear, Democrats wrongly conceded this language in the first days after 9/11. If Democrats don't revise this choice – and mount a massive communications effort to properly define the nature of our security challenges in this new era – the "war" metaphor will deliver millions of contestable votes for the incumbent president in 2004.
The second major premise that must be exploded is that Bush's domestic policy is "compassionate." The compassion hoax is central to Bush's appeal to the independent voters who decide presidential elections.
Bush and Karl Rove are counting on two "achievements" to sell the compassion hoax. The first was the No Child Left Behind Act, passed with Democratic support in 2001. No honest observer can say this law did anything serious for America's most troubled schools. But it has given Bush the credibility on education he shrewdly craves.
If Bush can go to voters in 2004 and also say he's the one who added prescription drugs to Medicare, this seals the deal on "compassion." You only need these two "talking points" in a stump speech (not to mention a record-breaking $200 million advertising campaign) to convince independents you're a caring kind of guy, and trump Democratic complaints to the contrary.
Thinking this way isn't pretty, I know. But in a world in which power matters, there's no avoiding it. Republicans know this and play for keeps. Indeed, the relevant precedent to the Medicare logic I'm offering came in December 1993 from Bill Kristol, the savvy Republican strategist who now edits The Weekly Standard.
As Hillary Clinton recounts on page 230 of her new memoir, Kristol advised Republicans in a famous memo that the Clinton health plan "was a serious political threat to the Republican Party." Any progress on the uninsured that Clinton could call a victory would be a seminal boost to Democrats for years. For the sake of the party, Kristol therefore argued, the GOP simply could not compromise with Clinton.
This logic ultimately swayed Republicans like Bob Dole, who by temperament were inclined to cut a deal (which, lest we forget, would have helped millions of luckless Americans). This isn't to say White House stubbornness didn't help wreck the chances for a compromise, too. But the key to Clintoncare's demise was the Kristol-inspired conviction among Republicans that their political interests made it imperative to kill the thing outright.
Fast forward to the summer of 2003. Tom Daschle says Democrats won't try to stop Bush's plan. Ted Kennedy urges his party to take the drug benefit they can get now and work to improve it later. I admire Ted Kennedy. But in 2001, Kennedy gave President Bush the education photo-op he needed for his 2004 ads and got little that matters for education in return.
Why aren't Democrats doing now what Republicans did in 1993? It's tempting to say it's because Democrats are good and Republicans are evil – but as I said, I'm not that partisan a person.
Stopping Bush's Medicare plan without being successfully blamed by Bush for obstructionism would call for a political dexterity that (to put it mildly) Democrats haven't shown in recent years.
But Democrats have a reservoir of public goodwill on health care that Republicans don't. And that means this political feat should be possible, though the line of attack would have to be chosen and demagogued – I mean, communicated – very carefully.
When it comes to morality and public policy, it's now common to ask "what Jesus would do." Before Democrats hand Bush his prescription drug victory, they ought to at least debate what Bill Kristol would do.
© 2003 Matthew Miller
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