Hill Republicans Fully Insured...President Bush: To Questions, Inured

THIS WEEK, THE WASHINGTON Post detailed how congressional Republicans used a closed-door negotiating session to gut a proposal that would have saved the federal government some $22 billion over ten years. The savings, passed as part of the Senate’s original budget reconciliation bill, were supposed to come from Medicare—specifically, from money the government pays to private insurance companies that offer benefits to seniors and other groups eligible for the program. Naturally, the health insurance industry didn’t care for this proposal, which is why, presumably, Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (both of whom received large campaign contributions from insurers) agreed to take it out once the reconciliation bill reached conference committee.

But knowing who gained from this tawdry little deal is only half the story. The other half is knowing who lost. That, of course, would be the poor souls who need Medicare to meet their health care needs. Money spent on giveaways to private insurers is money not spent on other useful purposes—including, potentially, a more generous drug benefit for seniors. The handout to the insurance lobby is even more galling when you consider that private insurers are actually less cost-effective than the government when it comes to providing health insurance. They tend to have considerably higher administrative overhead, and they lack the government’s bargaining leverage to bring down pharmaceutical prices. Don’t forget, too, that it’s arguably the central role of these private insurers in the new drug benefit that has made it such a mess to implement these past few weeks. So Bush and the Republicans really committed two separate sins. First, they diverted taxpayer dollars into the pockets of a corporate special interest. And, second, they did so in a way that has undermined a major domestic policy initiative. No wonder they wanted to keep this episode out of the public eye.

GREAT QUESTIONS OF OUR AGE

TWO WEEKS AGO, NOAM SCHEIBER chronicled Bush’s new campaign to “adopt a more humble approach” to listening to others in order to foster a more open debate about Iraq and the war on terrorism (“Character Flaw,” January 23). Rest assured, the White House claimed, the president has moved beyond stunts like October’s heavily scripted—and widely mocked—satellite question-and-answer session with troops in Tikrit. With headlines like “bush to take unscripted audience questions,” and some commentators even dubbing Bush “Oprah in Chief,” one might think he’s taken more than a baby step in the right direction.

Well, let’s see. Earlier this month, Bush gave a 74-minute talk in Louisville, Kentucky, about the war on terrorism, leaving a majority of the time for what were said to be “tough and challenging” questions from the audience. Of course, questions can only be so tough when tickets are privately distributed through business sponsors and the state Republican Party. Members of the audience spent most of the time thanking the president for preventing a terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, praising him for “having a will that will not be broken,” and calling him “a very pragmatic problem-solver.” One person even criticized the press for hurting “our national security and our troops’ safety.”

But perhaps this was just a warm-up. On Monday, the president participated in a similar event at Kansas State University, and, this time, many tickets were made publicly available to students. Still, Kansas is a very red state, and the predominantly Bush-friendly audience spent most of the question-and-answer hour telling the president how much they appreciate his “aggressive stance on terrorism,” suggesting that people “stop questioning the administration and [its] decision” to go to war, and praising Bush’s “character” and his ability to ignore his “critics.”

Where were those truly tough questions we had been promised? Well, apparently Bush decided they were pretty hard to listen to—literally. When one student asked how the $12.7 billion cut from student loans was “supposed to help our futures,” Bush claimed he was unable to hear the question. When the student repeated it, Bush quickly dissembled, telling her that the cuts were a “reform” intended to make “sure [the student loan process] works better.” Better for whom, he didn’t say.

And how does Bush do in a more intimate setting, where the acoustics pose fewer challenges? On New Year’s Day, Bush visited the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. After opening up the floor, military personnel started asking questions about NSA wiretapping, violations of privacy, and troop withdrawal from Iraq. Bush only allowed four questions, ending the entire event in eleven minutes. You see, Bush may finally be taking real questions from real people; it’s just the answers that still ring false.

POT TO KETTLE

‘Some leading Democrats have made wild and reckless and false charges against this president,” Karl Rove complained at the annual winter meeting of the Republican National Committee this week. He continued: ”Some [Senate Judiciary Committee] members came across, fortunately to a televised audience, as mean-spirited and small-minded, and it left a searing impression.”

Mean-spirited and small-minded? Who does that remind us of? Could it be the political operative who, during his efforts to help Perry Hooper win a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court by a recount in 1994, reportedly directed campaign workers to, as one staffer described it, “undermine the other side’s support by casting them as liars, cheaters, stealers, immoral—all of that”? Or the man who derided liberals for seeing “the savagery of the 9/11 attacks” as a chance to “offer therapy and understanding for our attackers” last summer? Or the man who, at businessman Teddy Forstmann’s annual gathering in Aspen this fall, called Cindy Sheehan “a clown”? Nah, we’re sure we must be thinking of someone else.


HOME NEWS

We at The New Republic would like to congratulate contributor Michael Ignatieff on winning a seat in last week’s Canadian parliamentary elections. Ignatieff is seen as a rising force in Canada’s Liberal Party, and we wish him luck in his political career.

This article appeared in the February 6, 2006 issue of the magazine.