MSNBC The Smell of a Real Scandal

Discussion in 'Politics' started by Nolan-Vinny-Sam, Mar 22, 2004.

  1. The Smell of a Real Scandal

    The run-up to the Iraq war was more hype than lie. Medicare is a clearer example of dishonesty and corruption at high levels
    By Jonathan Alter
    NewsweekMarch 29 issue - The Democrats are over the top. Last week the Democratic National Committee was once again trying to close the propaganda gap with the GOP, which has a much surer instinct for the jugular. The DNC risked a lawsuit from Burger King with what the party calls its daily "Home of the Whopper" blast e-mail. This time the supposed Republican "lie" was that certain items for sale on the Bush for President Web site were partly manufactured in Burma, despite an import ban against that despotic country. Now, it's fine to point this out, but the Democrats are in danger of losing perspective on mendacity in the Bush administration, crying wolf so often that voters stop noticing the real abuses. That's what was wrong with John Kerry's off-mike comments about the Republicans' being a bunch of liars and crooks. To be believable, he has to go to real cases with real culprits, like the Big Medicare Con now coming to light.

    The whole world knows we "got taken for a ride," as the president of Poland says, on Iraq. But because Bush & Co. were as shocked as anyone at the absence of WMD, that's more in the category of grotesque hype than outright lie. The Medicare story is a clearer example of dishonesty and, yes, corruption at high levels. As former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill's statements make clear, the lying about budget numbers began early in the administration, when the White House falsely claimed that the government could not use the surplus to further draw down the debt. It continued after 9/11, when an assistant Treasury secretary complained that the administration was squandering the national consensus by insisting on tax-cut projections that weren't real. But the most shocking deception took place in the run-up to the signing of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit on Christmas Eve.

    Recall how that bill squeaked through Congress only after some heads were cracked. A retiring Republican from Michigan, Rep. Nick Smith, even charges that supporters of the bill offered him a bribe in the form of financial support for the political campaign of his son. The bill was priced at the time at $400 billion over 10 years. After the deed was done (the specifics of which amounted to a huge giveaway to the pharmaceutical and health-care industries), it came out that the real cost will be at least $551.5 billion—a difference of $150-plus billion that will translate into trillions over time. Now we learn that the Bush administration knew the truth beforehand and squelched it. Rick Foster, the chief actuary for Medicare, says he was told he would be fired if he passed along the higher estimates to Congress. "I'll fire him so fast his head will spin," Thomas Scully, then head of Medicare, said last June, according to an aide who has now gone public.

    I knew Tom Scully a bit when he worked for Bush's father during the early 1990s. He is a whip-smart health-policy expert and Bush-family loyalist. He denies making the firing comment or saying that Foster was guilty of "insubordination" for wanting to tell Congress the truth. But Scully, who (natch) now works as a highly paid lobbyist on health issues, is stuck with the fact that Foster made clear efforts to be honest about the cost of this monstrosity.

    As for Bush himself, there are only two possibilities, both bad. The first is that he never learned the true cost of one of the major policy initiatives of his presidency. If so, he was incompetent. The second, more plausible, alternative is that he simply chose the lower, more convenient number and didn't have any problem with the honest figures produced by the bureaucracy's getting "deep-sixed," as they used to say during Watergate.

    You might think this is standard operating procedure in Washington. It is not. Every White House sends the press secretary out to spin the numbers that emerge on a weekly or monthly basis from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other agencies. But applying political pressure to cook the numbers themselves is a true scandal.

    The Bush administration now has an old-fashioned credibility gap. If numbers are released saying that the economy is perking up, why should anyone believe them? After all, it counts hamburger flippers as manufacturing jobs. The context of the election only magnifies the issue. New Bush ads charge that Kerry wants to raise taxes by $900 billion. This is a made-up number; Kerry has no such proposal. But even if he did, voters would not be able to take the Bush campaign's word on it, because its word is no longer good. The challenge for the Democrats is to resist the temptation to make their own phony claims, or to hype the usual petty distortions of politics into "lies." The truth is damaging enough.

    © 2004 Newsweek, Inc.