Gov. Tim Pawlenty was on the Hannity show last night. He tried out a new punch line and it goes like this:
“Having the Democrats watch your money and keep an eye over your money is like having Michael Vick watch your dog for the weekend.”
The tone of mockery in the Vick joke is not a serious offense in the context of today’s partisan discourse. The rest of the interview was unremarkable, as Sean Hannity tried, but failed, to get Pawlenty to endorse the Hannitarian belief that the media is covering various other stories in a desperate effort to distract attention from the one mega-story (on Planet Hannity) which is President Obama’s declining poll ratings. (Yes, they are declining.)
But Pawlenty also restated what has been a standard TPaw line for several weeks now. He said this in a Chicago speech to Republican activists and he said it the last time he was Fox, to Greta van Susteren. Here’s the verbatim from the Chicago speech:
“The entitlement programs that the federal government currently runs are all broke and headed to bankruptcy. Medicare is bankrupt or essentially bankrupt. Medicaid is essentially bankrupt. Social Security is essentially bankrupt.
“Why in the heck would we give the federal government another entitlement program to match on that track record?”
If you press hard on the key words and phrases, there are plenty of problems with Pawlenty’s portrayal of the situation.
Obama is not proposing a new health care entitlement program, at least as the term “entitlement” is currently used.
None of the programs Pawlenty cites are truly bankrupt. Social Security, the fiscally healthiest of the three, still brings in enough revenue to pay all promised benefits (although it is on a path to negative cash-flow). Medicare is drawing on its trust fund reserves. (I know the whole there-is-no-trust-fund argument, and it’s not utter nonsense, but you might think the fact that Medicare is now drawing on its trust fund would demonstrate that there is some reality to the money-we-owe-to-ourselves thing.) Medicaid, which gets general federal revenues and is partially paid by the states, is no more “bankrupt” than any other federal program. (Is the Defense Department “bankrupt? It brings in no revenue and the government that pays for it is in deficit.)
If we were to hold Gov. Pawlenty to a high standard of fairness and accuracy in his statements, this particular talking point would be found fairly seriously wanting.
But in a time when people are making up much bigger whoppers about the secret dark side of Obamacare, TPaw’s deviations from straight talk are minor offenses. Certainly the president and others who favor a substantial overhaul of health insurance regularly make statements that would not meet the highest standards of honest candor. I don’t guess any practicing politicians do. So my point here is not to make a big, hairy deal about Pawlenty’s misuse of the term “bankruptcy.”
To me, the Pawlenty cheap shots illustrate a deeper problem with the health care discussion. The topic has so many arms and legs that no one can reasonably deal with them all at once. But, depending on whether a politician is for or against the basic idea, they tend to portray the whole shmear as either all costs or all benefits (and then to dishonestly portray the costs and benefits).
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid all do face very, very daunting long-term fiscal challenges. These programs have the federal budget on an unsustainable path that I believe could wreck the U.S. economy if they are not addressed, but our political system seems unwilling to seriously address them. I believe Pawlenty, as a genuine fiscal conservative, is seriously troubled by this. One of his best standard lines is that you cannot indefinitely ignore what he calls the “fiscal laws of gravity.”
But so far as I know, Pawlenty has not specified the tax increases nor the benefit cuts that he would endorse to restore long-term fiscal sustainability to the big entitlement programs. Given Pawlenty’s general approach to governance, the chance that he would address the problem through tax increases seems remote. So if that’s not an option, if he’s going to blow hard about entitlement bankruptcy, he needs to specify very significant cuts in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits or beneficiaries.
And if he is going to make this an issue of Democratic Party fiscal irresponsibility, he also needs to acknowledge that during the decades that the entitlement programs have been heading toward what Pawlenty calls bankruptcy, the presidency and the Congress have passed through periods of Republican control without the problem being addressed. The change during the Bush years was the addition of an expensive new Medicare drug benefit. Is Pawlenty thinking about repealing that? (Pawlenty deserve half a point on this score, since he consistently tells Republicans that they are going to continue to claim the mantle of small government/fiscal responsibility, they have to “walk the walk.” This is an encoded reference to the deficit-growing sins of the Bush years.)
But, and this is really the point I set out to make, to use the entitlement programs as a reason not to support health care changes now is an example of a forest/trees problem.
About 47 million Americans do not have health insurance. To say this should not be addressed because Democrats control Congress and the White House is to say let them remain uninsured indefinitely (and, by the way, the number of uninsureds is rising steadily).
The above-inflation increases in health insurance premiums continues apace, putting a big drag on family budgets and forcing more employers to drop health benefits or pass more costs onto their employees. Americans are being denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Others are being kicked off the insurance rolls because they have reached the lifetime limit that their insurer will pay for their care. To say no to a major health care change is to leave these situations unaddressed.
Yes, Pawlenty has a few things he favors in health care that might expand access and reduce costs. He tends to refer to them as common-sense bipartisan ideas, but many of them are things Repubs favor and Dems are known to oppose.
But let’s be fair. Is Pawlenty obliged to go along with Dem ideas, with which he disagrees, just because to defeat those ideas means that the underlying problem will go unaddressed? I guess not. My only real wish, and it is listed with full knowledge of its lack of realism, is that the discussion could include the full range of problems that everyone agrees needs to be addressed and some awareness of the consequences of stalemate and inaction.
If anyone is still with me, your reward is one more Pawlenty punch line, introduced last Saturday at a speech to Republicans in Kissimmee, Fla. (the man is getting around), reported in the Orlando Sentinel (and previously noted by my esteemed Pi-Press colleague Bill Salisbury). In his Florida speech, Pawlenty faulted Obama’s education policies and said the current education system could be “cash for flunkers.”
(I stand corrected: shortly after posting this piece, I was informed that Pawlenty has been using the “cash for flunkers” gag for quite a while. Bit, if you hadn’t read it before, well, I guess you read it here first!)