Medicare: the new Third Rail of American politics?

at 07:30 AM ET, 05/26/2011

Forget Social Security. Medicare just might be the new Third Rail of American politics.

In the mid-1990s, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich pushed for $270 billion in Medicare savings. He got a government shutdown and contributed to President Clinton’s reelection in 1996.

Last year, Democrats passed a health care bill that cut $500 billion from Medicare, and senior citizens issued a strong rebuke in the 2010 election, swinging about 20 points towards Republicans.

And now, Republicans have lost a special election in western New York and are worried that they might be putting their 2012 prospects in jeopardy with an ambitious proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program.

Social Security has long been called the Third Rail of American politics because of how politically dangerous it was to attempt to change the program (the term refers to the high-voltage third rail on train tracks, which is not supposed to be touched).

But Social Security is also, for all intents and purposes, off-limits these days; President Bush toyed with privatization a few years ago, but little came of it, and other recent efforts to reform that entitlement have similarly failed to materialize.

Medicare is the entitlement where the parties are actually trying something, and so far, they’re getting burned by the new Third Rail.

Now, it remains to be seen how Republican will finesse the issue — Wednesday’s Senate vote showed that the GOP wasn’t totally scared off by Tuesday’s special election loss — but it’s clear that the process of reforming Medicare is not a pleasant one.

The question for Republicans is whether they want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In an impromptu conversation Wednesday with Clinton, Ryan suggested that the results of Tuesday’s special election would lead the issue to “sink into paralysis.”

But in more public remarks, Ryan and other Republicans assured that they were not backing down from their approach.

“We have a year and a half for the truth to come out, and when it does, the American people are going to know they’ve been lied to, and I think we’ll be doing very well,” Ryan said.

If Republicans are going to make the cuts their base is asking for, they need to look to entitlements. That means we are indeed going to find out if Medicare is the new Third Rail.

Obama approval hits 16-month high: A new Gallup poll shows President Obama with a 53 percent approval rating, which is the highest it has been in 16 months.

Obama’s approval had dipped back down when Osama bin Laden’s death faded from the news. But now it is in the rise again, and it’s not clear why.

Israel says, ‘We’re not going to get cocky’: Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) told Meet the Press’s David Gregory on Wednesday that there are 97 Republican House members in districts less Republican than New York’s 26th district, and that those incumbents “lost some sleep (Tuesday).”

But Israel was careful to add that Democrats won’t read too much into one race. “This is a special election where Medicare was an overriding issue,” Israel said. “We’re going to stay with our game plan.”

Israel also told Gregory that he disagreed with President Obama’s suggestion that a Palestinian state be drawn on 1967 lines, saying he “didn’t think the remark was necessary.”

Bill Nelson leads all comers: A new Quinnipiac University poll shows Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) leading all his potential Republican opponents by more than 20 points, though he is under 50 percent.

The three top Republican contenders — state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former senator George LeMieux and former state Rep. Adam Hasner — are all pretty unknown, and in a primary between the three of them, nobody registers more than 14 percent of the vote.

In the general election, Nelson leads Haridopolos by 21 percent, LeMieux by 20 percent and Hasner by 26 percent, taking 47 or 48 percent of the vote against all three.

Nelson’s approval is in solid territory right now, at 51 percent approval and just 24 percent disapproval. Even 39 percent of Republicans say they approve of the job he is doing.

Fixbits:

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) says Republicans shouldn’t shy away from Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) Medicare plan.

Newt Gingrich still won’t support the Ryan plan.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will announce his presidential plans by mid-July.

Colorado state Senate President Brandon Shaffer (D) is being coy about his plans to face Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in 2012.

Dr. John McGoff (R), who nearly upset Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) in a 2008 primary and then ran again in 2010, will try again in 2012, when Burton’s district may be tougher for him to hold after redistricting.

Businessman Brad Schneider (D) will challenge another potential redistricting target, Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.).

Republicans aren’t the only ones showing some hesitance to embrace their party’s budget. Former Virginia governor Tim Kaine (D), who is running for Senate, deflected when asked about whether he supported Obama’s budget.

Must-reads:

Signs grow that Palin may run” — Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny, New York Times

Michele Bachmann has pull to attract Republicans” — Jennifer Jacobs and Tony Teys, Des Moines Register

 
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