Look who’s defending Medicare now

Guest post by Andrew Murphy

The conservative wing of the Republican Party has come full circle. Republican conservatives once overwhelmingly opposed the creation of Medicare (the government health care organization for Americans 65 years and older). Now they’ve decided Medicare is not so bad after all.

Back in the mid-1960s when the Republican party still had its share of moderates and Disraeli-type conservatives, large numbers of Republicans were actually in favor of Medicare. Republicans in the House voted 70 to 68 in favor of Medicare. In the Senate they voted 17 to 13 against it.

But soon afterwards, the conservative ascent began in the party. Conservatives were never happy with the idea of providing government medical help, so the Road to Damascus conversion lately by conservative Republicans must be taken with a grain of salt. The Republicans are trying their best to undermine the Obama Administration’s attempt at overhauling America’s health care system.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accuses the Democrats of trying to raid the Medicare trust fund to pay for health reform. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says the Democrats are “cannibalizing” Medicare. And House Minority Leader John Boehner says he is worried about Medicare no longer being able to provide the quality America ’s seniors are used to, if health care reform comes to fruition.

Those are stark changes in rhetoric when you consider how conservative Republicans used to speak and vote on Medicare.

In the early 1960s, Ronald Reagan complained that if something like Medicare was implemented, it would lead to the end of freedom as Americans know it. You can listen to it here.

In 1964 the GOP presidential candidate and conservative icon Barry Goldwater said that the upcoming Medicare legislation was a giveaway: “Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind, why not food baskets, why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?”

In 1995, the leadership of the Republican Party in Congress under Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich proposed a 14 percent cut across the board in Medicare spending. Likewise Gingrich, speaking at a Blue Cross/Blue Shield conference in 1995, compared Medicare to a Soviet style bureaucracy (although Gingrich obviously forgot that Medicare manages to run at a 3 percent overhead compared to 30 percent overhead costs in the private US health care system).

In 1996 Bob Dole, the longtime Senator Republican leader and presidential candidate, bragged on the campaign stump, “I was there, fighting the fight, voting against Medicare . . . because we knew it wouldn’t work in 1965.”

In 2008, John McCain campaigned for president on reforming health care by cutting $1.3 trillion from Medicare and Medicaid (government health care for poor) over a ten-year period.

And during the current health care debate, former Republican Majority Leader and leading conservative activist Dick Armey has called Medicare a “tyranny.”

If some Republicans have had a genuine change of heart about Medicare, that is indeed good news. Because Medicare is one government program that is not only well-received by voters but which actually works.

Before 1965 and Medicare, more than half of all Americans over 65 had no health insurance at all and one in three lived in poverty. Since 1965, nearly all seniors have access to health care and poverty among the elderly is around 14 percent.

According to the Commonwealth Fund, a majority of seniors polled say they are satisfied with their health care from Medicare. The Kaiser Fund reports that many Americans seniors would like to see Medicare expanded to the early age of 55.

It appears Republicans believe they have found a way to gain political points at Obama’s expense. How ironic that it would be with a government program which, if many of them had their way, would never have existed in the first place.

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.