Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck stir the pot over Medicare cuts.

How to fix health policy.
Aug. 12 2009 5:26 PM

The Medicare-Isn't-Government Meme, Part 2

Why Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are complaining about possible spending cuts.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

Woman protesting the health care reform bill. Click image to expand.
Diane Campbell, protesting health care reform

Exactly one week ago I pledged to "keep a running inventory of instances in which people who should know better," like supply-side economist Arthur Laffer and former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., encourage the public to believe that Medicare is not a government program. Today's Wall Street Journal contains a choice example of this popular delusion from outside a high school in Portsmouth, N.H., where President Obama was holding a town-hall meeting on health care.

Inside the school gymnasium, the president said,

Medicare and Medicaid are on an unsustainable path. Medicare is slated to go into the red in about eight to 10 years. I don't know if people are aware of that. If I was a senior citizen, the thing I'd be worried about right now is Medicare starts running out of money because we haven't done anything to make sure that we're getting a good bang for our buck when it comes to health care.

He also said:

I've been getting a lot of letters, pro and con, for health care reform, and one of the letters I received recently, a woman was very exercised about what she had heard about my plan. She says, "I don't want government-run health care. I don't want you meddling in the private marketplace. And keep your hands off my Medicare." [Laughter.] True story.

And so I do think it's important for particularly seniors who currently receive Medicare to understand that if we're able to get something right like Medicare, then there should be a little more confidence that maybe the government can have a role—not the dominant role, but a role—in making sure the people are treated fairly when it comes to insurance. [Applause.]

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Outside the school, the Journal's Jonathan Weisman interviewed Diane Campbell of Kingston, N.H. Campbell's mother has an autoimmune disease that "is treated with expensive transfusions of gamma globulin, paid for by Medicare." Campbell's sister, the story notes, "was born with no arms and one leg, and is also covered by Medicare, the government-run, health-insurance program for the elderly and disabled."

In a more logical world, one might expect Campbell's worldview to incorporate the reality that her family relies on a government program to provide essential health care. Campbell might have quarrels with the generosity of Medicare benefits or with how the Medicare program is run. She might legitimately worry that in extending health care to others, the government could divert resources currently available to her mother and her sister through Medicare.

But whatever critique she provided, presumably it would come from a perspective that was consciously left-of-center, because Campbell's bottom line appears to be that the government should continue to extend, or even expand, medical benefits to her family. In our political culture, those who seek to promote the continuation or enlargement of social welfare programs are called liberals, leftists, or (more euphemistically) progressives. Those who seek to restrict or curtail such programs are called conservatives, libertarians, or (more harshly) right-wingers.

Now take a look at the placards that Campbell was waving (that's her in pink).

The two signs are identical, except that one contains a crucifix while the other contains a peace sign. They read: HEY AMERICA, YOU WANT CHANGE. HITLER DID TOO!! A drawing depicts Obama giving the Sieg Heil salute in front of a Nazi swastika. Lest you confuse Campbell's signs with Christian-tinged leftist agitprop, the word SOCIALISM appears under the rendering of Obama as storm trooper. "Adolf Hitler was for exterminating the weak, not just the Jews and stuff, and socialism—that's what's going to happen," Campbell told the Journal.

Perhaps I misread Campbell. Perhaps she's a devotee of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, which argues that contemporary liberalism descends from Hitler and Mussolini, Goldberg's trump card being that Nazi is an abbreviation of National Socialist. If that is Campbell's motivation, then I must have missed the chapter where Goldberg argued that liberalism's statist roots compel contemporary conservatives to oppose any and all cuts in, or forgo expansions of, government benefits.

More likely, Campbell is a devotee of Rush Limbaugh, self-proclaimed "intellectual engine of the conservative movement" (a status that Republican politicians have learned the hard way not to challenge). Conservatism's philosopher-king observed on Aug. 6:

[I]f you go and take a look at this, you will find that the Obama health care logo is damn close to a Nazi swastika logo. I'm going to show you people watching on the Dittocam this, and there you are. The middle frame is the Obama health care logo. At the bottom is an official Nazi logo, eagle and everything, spread wings, or bird with spread wings. … Obama's got a health care logo that's right out of Adolf Hitler's playbook.

(Quite apart from this assertion's inanity, Limbaugh's long career in radio appears to have dulled his powers of visual observation. Click here and scroll down to observe the imagined similarity.)

Limbaugh continued:

Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate. …  He was called the Messiah. He said the people spoke through him.  Do you know what the very first law that Hitler ordained was? The very first law was a law declaring how to cook lobsters. They were to be boiled. That was deemed to be the least painful.  The law was sent around to all the restaurants. Now, does this sound like something any conservative president has ever done or does it sound like the things that liberals are doing all over this country?

Limbaugh doesn't advocate expanding Medicare benefits. But he has beefed that Democrats have long made a practice of attacking Republicans for advocating cuts in Medicaid and Medicare and yet aren't taking enough heat for (potentially) doing the same. Quoting a New York Post column by Rich Lowry in which Lowry said that "almost every other day, Obama finds another $100 billion to cut out of Medicare and Medicaid," Limbaugh complained on June 16:

[A]nd nobody is upset about it! Can you remember a time when a government official started talking about cutting Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid and nobody beefed? Never! Obama is getting away with it each and every day.

If Campbell isn't a Limbaugh listener, perhaps she watches Glenn Beck on Fox News. Unlike Limbaugh, Beck doesn't profess to be a great conservative thinker or even a consistent one. Still, it was odd to see him berate David Certner, federal affairs director of the American Association of Retired Persons, for countenancing potential cuts in Medicare spending. Beck's underlying point was that health care reform is noxious and evil, and that Certner is wrong to favor it. Rather than state, however, that all manifestations of government-funded health care, Medicare included, constitute unjustifiable state intervention in the free market, Beck argued that Medicare spending is sacred and must not be diverted to fund health care for the general population. Let's go to the tape:

[S]ir, you at the AARP, who are supposed to be representing people like my parents, and people like me eventually, you should be ashamed of yourself. You really should be ashamed of yourself. … I've gone to your Web site, sir, and I've seen: "We've cancelled our AARP membership after 11 years." "Is it true that health care would keep me from getting stents and bypasses if I'm over 59?"

This is Claude Pepperish demagogy. It wasn't right when Pepper, a liberal Democratic congressman from Florida, indulged in it. But at least it made ideological sense: Pepper supported government social welfare programs like Medicare. Limbaugh and Beck oppose them. Somebody please tell Diane Campbell.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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