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Medicare looms as major issue in ND

By Staff | Jun 3, 2011

In April, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis) introduced a Republican budget proposal that included a new voucher system to replace Medicare and make sharp spending cuts in Medicaid. House Republicans voted for the proposal en masse while every Democrat voted against it.

This was followed by a Congressional election in upstate New York where a Democrat swamped the Republican candidate in a traditionally Republican district on the issues raised by the Ryan proposal.

Meanwhile, the pollsters have been tracking public opinion on debt reduction as well as the sanctity of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. They’re finding massive support for debt reduction and equally massive support for keeping Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as they are. Any rational person will conclude that voters have a couple of incompatible positions, creating a serious dilemma for policymakers.

By choosing the popularity of debt reduction, Congressman Ryan kicked the hornets’ nest. Believe it or not, it is the same hornets’ nest the Democrats kicked with their health care reform package, a package that cost them control of the House of Representatives. Now the same fate may face Republicans.

Republicans hope to regroup by explaining their approach to the electorate. Democrats tried to reason with the electorate in 2010 and found out that reason doesn’t work when emotions are running rampant.

Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security have become political untouchables by Republicans and Democrats alike because any change threatens a large portion of the population.Messing with these programs is messing with the personal security of insecure populations and they will cross party lines to protect them. That is what happened in New York and you can bet that the members of Congress who were defeated in 2010 will be coming back in droves to fight for their seats.

Tragically, the Republican loss in New York has derailed any hope for a bipartisan solution to the debt problem. Smelling victory in the wind, Democrats will not be motivated to concede ground to reach any sort of debt compromise. If they can win the House back, they won’t have to deal with Republicans’ demands. Debt reduction will be a stand-off for another couple of years.

Congressman Rick Berg (R-ND) voted in favor of the Paul proposal, making himself vulnerable in the 2012 election because Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are all cutting issues in North Dakota. Around 110,000 North Dakotans are Medicare beneficiaries and over half of the patients in nursing homes are financed by Medicaid. Both programs have armies of family voters and sympathizers.

While the issues involved could defeat Congressman Berg, he may be saved by a hard rule of politics: you can’t beat somebody with nobody. With Senator Kent Conrad and former Congressman Earl Pomeroy counting themselves out of 2012, the Democrats have practically nobody with statewide visibility to run for either the Senate or the House against Berg. They hold no statewide offices and very few in the Legislature.

Congressman Berg may have courted disaster with his vote but he may be saved by the inability of the Democrats to come up with a formidable candidate to take advantage of the issue. Politicians have been known to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory and Democrats may do just that in 2012.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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