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An Election Democrats Can Win

April 11th, 2014

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Obamacare versus Ryanomics. That’s the battle line for 2014. It’s also a battle Democrats can win.

Why? Because most Americans are pragmatists. Pragmatists believe that whatever works is right. Ideologues believe that if something is wrong, it can’t possibly work — even if it does work. That’s the Republican view of Obamacare: It’s wrong, so it can’t possibly work.

But it now looks like Obamacare may work. More than 7 million people signed up for health insurance by the March 31 deadline, meeting the Obama administration’s original goal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “The Affordable Care Act, whether my Republican friends want to admit it or not, is working.”

Republicans admit nothing. “Even though the Democrats are trying to take some victory lap, it’s very short term,” Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) told the New York Times. “The bad news continues. The hits keep coming.”

Do they? The Affordable Care Act continues to be unpopular, though some polls show a slight uptick in public support. “House Republicans will continue to work to repeal this law,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) promised last week. (They have already voted to repeal all or parts of the law 55 times.) The Republican view is simple: It’s wrong, therefore it can’t possibly work.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to repeal a law that gives health insurance to so many Americans. A recent Rand study estimates that 9.3 million American adults were added to the insurance rolls as of March, a figure that includes those who signed up in the new marketplace, received new employer coverage or enrolled in Medicaid. They are all being helped by Obamacare.

Still, it’s too early to conclude that the law will work. There are many challenges coming. The employer mandate goes into effect next year, and some employers may use the requirement to cover their employees’ health insurance as a pretext to reduce workers’ hours and wages.

Moreover, insurers will announce new premiums for 2015 this fall. If the risk pools do not include enough young and healthy people, premiums could skyrocket.  That would set off a backlash among those currently insured — just in time for the midterm elections.

In the public’s view, the Affordable Care Act should be mended but not ended. What people don’t want to lose are the two most popular provisions of the act — requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said those provisions would be too expensive to include in any Republican replacement measure.

The least popular component is the individual mandate requiring every American to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. If you do away with the mandate, however, the entire plan falls apart. So mending the law won’t be easy.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Democrats had a stroke of luck.  On April 1, Ryan came out with a 10-year budget plan involving massive cuts in popular federal programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, education, student loans and environmental protection. Ryan’s proposal would eventually change Medicare — the most popular of all federal programs — from an insurance policy to a “premium support” program, where seniors would be given subsidies to purchase private insurance. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney proposed doing that in 2012. Look where it got him

“Thank you, thank you, Congressman Paul Ryan for reminding us what Republicans would do if they had control,” Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) remarked. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Democratic whip, called it “a bad April Fool’s joke.”

Ryan’s proposal, which includes repeal of Obamacare, is a severe austerity plan aimed at achieving a balanced budget by 2024. There is no evidence that most Americans are willing to make the kinds of sacrifices necessary to get a balanced budget. Nor is Ryanomics likely to be signed into law.

What it does is give Democrats something to run against. “The choice is stark,” Reid said, as he stood on the Senate steps flanked by more than 30 Democratic senators. “The American people are watching.”

Democrats will run against Ryanomics. Republicans will run against Obamacare. Remember the rule of pragmatism: Whatever works is right.

If Americans come to believe Obamacare works, they will be reluctant to throw it out.  Especially the millions who will already have a stake in Obamacare. On the other hand, Ryan is threatening to do away with programs like Medicare that people know are working. Why? Because he and his fellow Republicans think those programs are wrong. Attacking programs that work is pure ideological bloodlust. And a losing battle for sure.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.