op-ed

Don’t let political cowardice and opportunism bankrupt America

David Meyers Former White House Staffer
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When Paul Ryan released his plan to reform Medicare, Democrats and Republicans praised him for engaging the country in a serious debate about entitlement reform. This is a debate that everyone knows we must have because entitlements like Medicare are going broke and bankrupting our country in the process. But now, only weeks later, political cowardice and political opportunism are threatening to end the entitlement debate before it even gets started.

According to a recent New York Times story, House Republicans are being attacked for supporting the Ryan plan and fear it might hurt them in the 2012 elections. This fear is exactly why politicians in both parties have refused to reform entitlement programs in the past. Their political cowardice has led to an American economy that is running an annual deficit of more than $1 trillion, losing the confidence of the rest of the world, and sinking deeper into a black hole of debt.

It is shameful and irrational for politicians to abandon attempts to seriously reform Medicare and other entitlements because they fear they’ll lose an election. To begin with, many of the “constituents” protesting Ryan’s plan at town halls belong to interest groups like Moveon.org that are attending the events to generate negative press. Furthermore, many of the people who are genuinely upset probably don’t understand Ryan’s plan or merely disagree about his methods for the worthy goal of entitlement reform.

Republicans (and Democrats for that matter) must have the courage to stand up for their beliefs. If they do, they’ll be rewarded on Election Day. According to a recent Gallup poll, “48 percent of seniors (those 65 and over) support Ryan’s plan over President Obama’s plan, while 42 percent back the president.” This is all the more remarkable considering that Ryan’s plan has only been out for a few weeks, its details are not well known, its goals have been distorted by the media, and many of these seniors probably don’t know much, if anything, about Paul Ryan.

What these seniors do know is that they want to leave a stable and prosperous America for their children and grandchildren. And they know that doing so will require sacrifice by Americans of all ages.

Democrats understand this too. President Obama recently explained the gravity of the situation. “By 2025,” he said, “the amount of taxes we currently pay will only be enough to finance our health care programs — Medicare and Medicaid — Social Security, and the interest we owe on our debt. . . . Every other national priority . . . will have to be paid for with borrowed money.”

President Obama has called for large tax increases to help make up for this gap. Some targeted, careful changes to tax policy might be necessary to rein in our debt. But tax increases will never be enough to make up for the exploding costs of entitlement programs (medical costs continue to rise exponentially as does the number of seniors enrolled in Medicare and Social Security). And large-scale tax increases would put the breaks on our fragile recovery and have a negative impact on our long-term economic outlook. The only way to really solve our financial problems is to reform entitlements.

So it is appalling to see some Democrats use Ryan’s attempt at entitlement reform as an opportunity to scare senior citizens for political gain. Democrats have every right to disagree with how Paul Ryan approaches his goal, but they cannot tell seniors that we can continue Medicare and Social Security in their current forms.

If Democrats don’t like Ryan’s plan, they should propose their own plan that is just as serious and will actually address the problem. But despite the efforts of some Democrats in Congress to come up with a serious alternative, President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid have all punted on the issue.

This article is not a blind, reflexive political attack against Democrats. Both parties have been guilty of using scare tactics and distortions in the past. But in this case, it is the Democratic Party that is putting politics ahead of our nation’s prosperity, future, and survival.

One Democratic operative quoted by Politico said that Ryan’s plan was a “godsend.” Not because it might help our country, but because “it finally gives us an argument to make with seniors.” This kind of shortsighted, self-interested worldview is exactly why Americans are fed up with politicians who refuse to lead and do what they were elected to do.

Reforming entitlements should not be a partisan issue. For decades, political cowardice and opportunism by both parties have driven our country into a financial ditch. If we don’t address the problem soon, we might never be able to dig ourselves out. Now is the time for a change that all Americans, Republican and Democrat, can really believe in.

David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.