Dana Milbank
Opinion writer March 16, 2012

Are Republicans ready to be trusted with the reins of power?

If you’re thinking of answering this in the affirmative, you might want to pause long enough to learn what transpired on the third floor of the Capitol on Thursday. There, four prominent Republican lawmakers announced their proposal to abolish Medicare — “sunset” was their pseudo-verb — even for those currently on the program or nearing retirement.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

In Medicare’s place would be a private plan that would raise the eligibility age and shift trillions of dollars worth of health-care coverage from the government to the elderly. “This will be the new Medicare,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the proposal’s author, announced.

For years, Republicans have insisted that they would not end Medicare as we know it and that any changes to the program would not affect those in or near retirement. In the span of 20 minutes Thursday, they jettisoned both promises.

“The president and Harry Reid have been licking their chops for over three years now waiting for Republicans to actually try to deal with the large problems like Medicare,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) told reporters. “So, this is the moment they’ve been waiting for.”

He’s right about that. Don’t expect Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Mitch McConnell or John Boehner to take up the cry; the party leadership isn’t about to line up for abolishing the popular entitlement program. The real question is whether party leaders would be able to repel this conservative movement to end Medicare if Republicans gain control of the White House and Congress, where conservatives already dominate the GOP caucuses.

The end-Medicare sponsors are key figures: DeMint is the godfather of the Tea Party, and he was joined by Paul and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), two conservative rising stars. Completing the foursome was Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an influential thinker. Two other Republican senators, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, have introduced a somewhat related plan to deal with Medicare, and Rep. Paul Ryan’s House Republican budget would also privatize Medicare, though on a slower timetable.

But DeMint and his colleagues think the time to end Medicare is now — with a cold-turkey conversion to a private program, effective in 2014. “I think if Americans actually find out the truth about what we’re doing, it will be a very big positive for Republicans in the fall,” DeMint forecast.

All the details aren’t out, but Paul says his plan would cut funding of Medicare by $1 trillion over 10 years and reduce Medicare’s liabilities by $16 trillion. It would do that by enrolling Medicare recipients in the health plan now used by federal workers. The government would pay 75 percent of the insurance premium on average but 30 percent or less for those who earned more than $100,000 a year. The eligibility age would gradually be raised to 70 from 65. If seniors can’t afford their share of the premium, they can apply for Medicaid, the health program for the poor.

Paul claimed his idea came from the Democrats’ 2004 presidential platform. But John Kerry wanted to extend the federal employee health plan to the general population, not to Medicare recipients. The 2004 platform vowed to “oppose privatizing Medicare.”

At Thursday’s news conference, Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times pointed out that the lawmakers were proposing to do with Medicare almost exactly what President Obama’s reforms do for non-retirees: Direct them into private insurance with a subsidy for those who need it most.

Paul was flummoxed. “Uh, anybody want to comment on that?” he asked, producing laughter in the Senate TV studio.

DeMint gave it a try. “Medicare’s already set up as a government program, so we’re beginning to privatize with this idea,” he said. He said his plan takes Medicare recipients “out from under that manipulative umbrella of the Democratic Party.”

With each answer, the senators seemed in danger of sparking an all-out Mediscare in the populace. No, seniors could not opt to keep Medicare as it now exists. Yes, this would sharply increase insurance costs for federal workers.

DeMint’s justification: Medicare will soon be dead anyway. “It is not going to be there in five or 10 years if we don’t do anything,” he reasoned.

True, Medicare is in trouble. But is killing it before it dies the best solution? “Trust me, it’s a good deal,” Graham assured the public. “We designed it. I can assure you, you will like it.”

Now there’s a winning slogan for 2012: Trust him — he’s a politician.

danamilbank@washpost.com