Watching Paul Ryan earlier today talking at the Peterson Fiscal Summit I was amazed by the number of times he said the word “Mediscare,” which is a conservative jargon term for telling the truth about proposals to eliminate Medicare. I’d heard the word a lot over the past couple of weeks, basically ever since we started seeing polls indicating that Kathy Hochul’s “make accurate claims about her opponent’s strategy for Medicare privatization” strategy was working. So I asked Matthew Cameron to take a look at the history of the word, which seems like a pretty obvious pun. The Lexis-Nexis database doesn’t show any usages before the Clinton administration. Then along came Speaker Newt Gingrich and his plan to let Medicare “wither on the vine” and die via a slow-motion privatization plan.
Democrats pushed back against this with a “make accurate claims about their opponents’ strategy for Medicare privatization” and then the term “mediscare” was dreamed up as counter-pushback. The David Brooks of the era, William Safire, for example, was very upset in December of 1995:
The under-40 set’s inability to see and speak up for its self-interest (justifiable in tots but surprising in thirtysomethings) has given President Clinton license to engage in “Mediscare.” This is his shamelessly demagogic campaign to frighten older Americans into thinking that deficit reduction might soon leave them destitute in the snow, and to bamboozle them with pie in the medical sky.
Again, when faced with someone who’s strategy is for Medicare to “wither on the vine” and die, putting the program on a slippery slope to privatization and extinction, it seems to me that it’s reasonable for people to be alarmed. Note that someone who was 39 when Safire published that column would likely be 55 today and Paul Ryan would desperately be trying to persuade him that he would be exempt from the latest version of privatization.
In September of 1996, Bob Dole was en route to losing a Presidential election and threw himself a pity party:
Instead of working with Republicans and with the Democrats to try to secure, preserve and strengthen Medicare, the President chose to engage in a campaign to scare American seniors. We call it Mediscare! Mediscare! Mediscare! All the ads you see in Florida, all the ads you see in Florida, are negative Mediscare ads!
To my way of thinking, it’s difficult to work with people to secure, preserve, and strengthen Medicare when their intention is either to privatize it quickly (Paul Ryan) or to do it more gradually (Gingrich) so as to make it “wither on the vine” and die. But if spending-averse conservatives become convinced that killing Medicare is impossible then it might be possible to get some on board for something like a real plan to reduce the growth in health care spending.