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Is Obama Selling Us Out on Medicare?

Hiking the eligibility age is such a terrible idea Obama can't possibly be considering it. Or can he?


I want to put a public service announcement on top of this post: The fiscal cliff scenarios discussed here may never become reality. The worst sell-outs of liberal principles allegedly under consideration by the White House, particularly a hike in the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, may be trial balloons by staffers, or outrages floated in order to make other compromises more palatable to progressives later. Besides, given the stranglehold the Tea Party still has on John Boehner, President Obama can afford to make bad proposals and even promises: right-wing extremists will probably never agree to the tax hikes that would force him to keep them.  He could promise that David Axelrod would not only shave off his stache but cut off his nose, confident that his advisor’s schnoz would stay put.

And I admit: I’ve howled at reports of Obama “betrayals” before, only to find later that the president negotiated a better deal than early reports showed, Exhibit A being the payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits he got in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts after the “shellacking” of the 2010 midterm elections.

Still, progressives are right to howl at reports,  most reliably from Ezra Klein in the Washington Post, that the White House is prepared to make big compromises to achieve a fiscal-cliff deal. Klein reported Friday that “smart folks” say the administration is prepared to raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67 and compromise on top tax rates, bringing them to 37 percent, not the 39.6 percent they’ll go to Dec. 31, to avert the supposed “cliff.”

These are terrible ideas. Raising the Medicare eligibility age is so bad that I literally can’t believe the president would consider it. Even though there’s evidence he might. But New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait believes it, and moreover,  he thinks it’s a compromise liberals should accept. “Summary argument,” Chait wrote defending his case: “It carries disproportionate symbolic weight with Republicans, people will still be covered by Obamacare, and it will create a constituency against Republicans’ efforts to nullify Obamacare.”

The entire progressive Internet went all in on Chait over the weekend, and I’m reluctant to pile on, but, well, I can’t resist.  I’m an ardent liberal, probably to Chait’s left, but his reasoning epitomizes stereotypical liberal elitism and backwards social engineering. Let’s take people out of a good program that they love, Medicare, and put them in a (so-far) non-existent program they don’t trust, Obamacare, as a way to widen support for Obamacare. In other words, take away something they like, and give them something liberals think they  should like. This is why people hate (stereotypical) liberals.

But it’s not just Chait who believes the deal is possible. Obama-doubting progressives like my friend Glenn Greenwald point to multiple reports that the president was willing to raise the Medicare eligibility age in order to reach a debt-ceiling “grand bargain” in 2011. And facing suggestions on Twitter (including from me) that the supposed Medicare proposal wasn’t genuine, Ezra Klein tweeted at me and Greenwald:  “yes, given how widely reported that was, I’m baffled by the disbelief that age is in the negotiations.” He followed up, when people blamed the messenger (him) for the bad idea, by saying: “I don’t want to raise the Medicare age. I’m reporting that it may happen.”

There are so many things wrong with raising the eligibility age that I still can’t believe it’s under consideration. That’s not doubting Klein; it’s just a failure on my part to imagine that data-driven leaders — Republican or Democrat — would propose it. It doesn’t save money; it’s a shell game that just pushes costs around. While it’s possible that lower-income 65 and 66 year olds would be eligible for Obamacare, that means we’d be subsidizing them anyway. Besides there’s no guarantee such subsidies will exist: Republican governors are refusing to expand Medicaid or create the insurance exchanges to make it possible. Even Obama’s new GOP BFF, Chris Christie, says he won’t do it in the blue state of New Jersey. Remember, too, that Obamacare works through the private insurance industry, which has at least five times the administrative costs of Medicare.

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