Here at Winning Progressive we tend to be fans of Paul Krugman, largely because he is one of the few nationally prominent figures who consistently uses their position to promote a strongly progressive economic vision for our country. To those of us who are disheartened seeing the vast majority of the media focus almost exclusively on the interests and concerns of the wealthy, Professor Krugman’s columns and blog are often an oasis of economic common sense.
Unfortunately, Professor Krugman tends to go off track when it comes to one topic – President Obama. Too frequently, Krugman’s writings assume the worst from our President, and treat compromises that he makes to get things done as the President happily selling out progressives and adopting the conservative position. Now, strongly advocating the progressive position and offering constructive criticism when President Obama or other Democrats stray from the path are absolutely necessary elements of advancing the progressive cause. But making President Obama appear to be essentially as bad as the Republicans – as the constant attacks from Professor Krugman and too many others on the left tends to do – is both wildly inaccurate and counterproductive to the goals we are trying to achieve.
A case in point is Professor Krugman’s most recent New York Times column, Messing With Medicare. In it, Krugman discusses the importance and value of Medicare and why we should expand Medicare to everyone. Krugman then notes the problems with two proposals floating around D.C. – raising the eligibility age for Medicare and means testing. Then, based on unsourced news reports, Krugman assumes that President Obama has offered such changes to Medicare in the debt ceiling negotiations. After explaining why cutting Medicare would be bad politics for President Obama and the Democrats, Krugman then assumes the worst from our President, stating:
it’s possible that the reason the president is offering to undermine Medicare is that he genuinely believes that this would be a good idea. And that possibility, I have to say, is what really scares me.
The problem with this analysis is that such an unsubstantiated attack on President Obama is counter productive to the progressive movement because it feeds into the GOP’s efforts to blur the line between the two parties on every issue where the GOP position is unpopular. Winning Progressive agrees with Professor Krugman that the politics of proposing cuts to Medicare are bad. But that is why we progressives need to avoid falling into the trap of pretending that President Obama’s willingness to accept certain things as part of the debt ceiling negotiations somehow makes him an enemy of Medicare along the lines of the Republicans. The simple fact is that he is not.
First, let’s all keep in mind what the GOP’s plan is – to abolish Medicare and replace it with inadequate vouchers that seniors would have to use to try to negotiate with private insurance companies. The GOP plan would increase overall health care spending and leave millions more seniors without health insurance or with highly inadequate insurance. Yet all but five Republican House members and all but four Republican Senators voted for exactly such plan to abolish Medicare.
By contrast, President Obama has already taken a number of steps to strengthen Medicare, including putting us on track to close the prescription drug plan doughnut hole, cutting unnecessary insurance industry subsidies in the Medicare Advantage plan, proposing to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices, and encouraging comparative effectiveness policies and a strengthening of the Independent Patient Advisory Board to help rationalize health care spending. Each of those things will help put Medicare on a more sustainable path so that it will be there over the long run and be less vulnerable to GOP efforts to destroy the program.
As for raising the Medicare eligibility age, that is undeniably a bad idea. But there is little evidence that the President actually pushed for that. Instead, Professor Krugman and numerous others cite solely to unsourced reports about what the President was willing to accept as part of negotiating to save our economy from the GOP hostage takers. So, we don’t know if President Obama actually agreed to this or, if he did, what worse thing he avoided by doing so. What we do know is that our President has time and again publicly vowed to defend Medicare benefits and make sure that it is sustainable over the long run.
As for means testing, I have no problem asking the wealthy to pay somewhat higher premiums or co-pays. In fact, Medicare premiums are already means tested, as folks making more than $170k as a couple or $85k as an individual pay a bit more in premiums than do the rest of us. So the only real objection identified by Professor Krugman to asking the wealthy to pay somehwat higher premiums or co-pays – namely, efficiency - does not fly. Certainly, such a proposal does not constitute President Obama “offering to undermine Medicare” as Krugman fears.
The biggest problem with these sorts of attacks from our fellow progressives is that they blur the lines between the two parties on an issue where the pro-Medicare position is clearly the more popular. Right now, the GOP’s vote to abolish Medicare presents a clear picture for voters as to who supports Medicare and who opposes it. But when progressives claim that President Obama is “offering to undermine Medicare” based on unsubstantiated reports about what he may have been willing to accept to save our economy from hostage takers, it inaccurately makes the public think that it does not matter in terms of Medicare whether one votes for Democrats or Republicans.
The true enemy of Medicare is the GOP not our President. Let’s not help the GOP make it seem otherwise.