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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Medicare Prescription Drugs: Did the Democrats Blow It Again?

There’s certainly a reasonable argument to be made that they did.  Here is one of the Democrats’ signature issues being taken off the table, with the assistance of the Democrats themselves, including most famously, the Senate’s liberal lion, Ted Kennedy (and Kennedy, of course, played a similar in the passage of the No Child Left Behind education reform package in early 2002).  Assuming the House- and Senate-passed bills are reconciled, which seems likely, and the President signs the resulting bill, which seems very likely, Bush and the GOP will trumpet the legislation as a great accomplishment for their team and proof that Bush is indeed a compassionate conservative.  And that will make Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 much easier by shoring up his image at its weakest point.  
Many observers–for example, Matthew Miller–believe the Democrats should have been made of sterner stuff and blocked what are terrible bills anyway to prevent the GOP from reaping these political dividends.  Even nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook remarked: “By going along with a compromise that many Democrats are convinced is too limited, too complex, and too likely to spark a senior furor later on, the Democratic Party may well be making yet another miscalculation.”
That could very well be so.  Certainly, the CW seems to be coalescing around that view, as can be seen in the headlines of the main analysis stories last weekend in The Washington Post (“GOP May Get a Boost with Seniors”) and The New York Times (“GOP Steals Thunder”).  The issue, though, is how the bill will play once the 2004 campaign heats up and Democrats have a chance to point out its many shortcomings, including the bizarre “doughnut hole” in coverage where (to take the House version) no benefits whatsoever are paid on drug expenditures from $2,000 to $4,900.  That means that, for example, a retiree with $5,000 in drug expenses would wind up paying about 80 percent of costs herself, under this version of the bill.
Note also that the benefit does not actually become available until 2006.
This should give the Democrats plenty of time and raw material to make their case.  Why does the bill have such huge gaps in coverage?  Because they didn’t have the money to provide the full benefit.  Why didn’t they have the money?  Because they spent umpty-gazillion dollars on tax cuts before they ever got around to considering a drug benefit.
Nothing complicated about that argument.  Even the average Democrat should be able to make it.   A recent poll of 55 and over voters by Peter Hart Research on Medicare and prescription drugs shows they’ll probably have a receptive audience.  Many of the provisions likely to be in final prescription drugs bill are already viewed unfavorably by large majorities of these voters, including, of course, the doughnut hole in coverage, which is viewed unfavorably by 72 percent.  It is possible the Democrats will find themselves in better shape not having to advocate for their Plan A versus the Republican Plan B on prescription drugs, as they have in past elections, which has proved to be a murky and surprisingly unproductive debate for them.  Now they can just concentrate on crisp, clear criticisms of Plan B, which makes a nice fat target.  And maybe talk about some other issues for a change.
DR is ready to take opening bids on an education plan.