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This Is the Democrats' Brain on Drugs


We're getting closer and closer to passage of a bill providing a prescription drug benefit for Medicare. If it does pass and is signed by Bush, which seems likely, who stands to benefit politically? Will it open the door to privatization of Medicare (still Bush's stated goal), while providing him with that compassionate conservative cover he so desperately wants going into next year's election? Or, by providing a large new entitlement, does it play into the Democrats' strength, who will then seek to expand and shore up the benefit, while criticizing Republicans mercilessly for standing in the way and having a secret agenda of privatization?


At this point, no consensus has emerged. Indeed, Democrats are all over the map on this one, as E.J. Dionne discusses in his most recent column. And The New York Times today covers conservative opposition within Congress to the bill, showing that Republicans are not completely united either.


DR suspects Bob Kuttner may have it right in his most recent column where he dismisses the doomsday scenarios of some liberals about the bill and its politics. He argues that, short of a truly horrendous bill, the issue will be "pay dirt" for Democrats in the future, because they can "expose its limitations, vote for it and pledge to improve it". And the Democrats, of course, can still run against Medicare privatization, which continues to be vigorously opposed by the public, as shown by a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll on Medicare reform and prescription drugs.


And there may be another, hidden benefit. The passage of the bill makes it much less likely that Democrats will make prescription drugs central to the 2004 campaign, in the way they have in the last several elections. That's a good thing, since it will force them to think creatively about other issues like the economy and education, instead of taking refuge in the matra: "prescription drugs for seniors". And they're going to need all the creative thinking they can get, if they hope to beat the Republicans in 2004 and beyond.