Practically everyone with “sources” in the White House has weighed in on this Medicare eligibility age debate. Some have stated that the idea is on the table in negotiations, others have categorically denied it. Resolved, it’s a big White House with lots of staffers, many of whom try to push their preferred paths through the media, and a story with sources saying raising the eligibility age is an option, and a story with sources saying it isn’t, can both be right.
Also resolved, staffers in this White House in particular float trial balloons on a continual basis on virtually every issue of importance to gauge public response, and the whole point of that exercise is to actually respond to it rather than not take it seriously. And if that’s the case, and the eligibility age conversation represented a trial balloon, I think we can say it’s been effectively and efficiently popped. Because over the weekend, Dick Durbin, perhaps the closest US Senator to the White House, criticized the idea:
DAVID GREGORY (HOST): Senator, one point about Medicare. You say you want to put off this discussion until later. But bottom line, should the Medicare eligibility age go up? Should there be means testing to get at the benefits side, if you want to shore this program up, because 12 years as you say before it runs out of money?
DURBIN: I do believe there should be means testing. and those of us with higher income in retirement should pay more. That could be part of the solution. But when you talk about raising the eligibility age, there’s one key question. what happens to the early retiree? What about that gap in coverage between workplace and Medicare? How will they be covered? I listened to Republicans say we can’t wait to repeal Obamacare, and the insurance exchanges. Well, where does a person turn if they are 65 years of age and the medicare eligibility age is 67? They have two years there where they may not have the best of health. They need accessible, affordable medical insurance during that period.
Neera Tanden, currently the head of CAP, also went out of her way to reject raising the eligibility age on Up with Chris Hayes Sunday. Tanden worked in the White House, and CAP is very closely aligned with the Administration as well.
It seems to me that means testing has been discussed and approved just as much as raising the eligibility age by the Simpson/Bowles class of fiscal scolds, and that’s getting a much more positive response here from Durbin and the gang. The devil’s in the details on that one, as I’m told that to derive anything approaching real revenue out of such a solution you have to dip well into the middle class for your premium increase. But there’s nothing really to look at on that front.
The ritual of trial balloon and response is enervating, to say the least. It’s also a part of 21st-century politics, as Digby points out. It’s not like this is the first time anything has been pitched in the media by someone in this White House.
I will say that the idea that the Medicare eligibility age is part of the conversation, along with means testing, along with changing the cost of living adjustment in Social Security, is because the President offered these in 2011 as part of the debt limit negotiations. That’s why Republicans inserted them into their current counter-offer.
I remember some defenders of the President saying that wasn’t a serious offer, that Obama knew Republicans would never go for the tax increases, that he was merely looking reasonable. I said at the time in the American Prospect:
But even if McConnell’s plan passes, the legacy of what Obama put on the table for cuts in these talks will haunt Democrats for many years, and we’ll see those proposals again — with lines like “Even Barack Obama supported” attached to them. It was a damaging strategy.
That’s where we are today. Republicans didn’t write the menu for what they want on social insurance, the President did last year. He hasn’t necessarily shown the willingness to support those cuts this time around, at least not publicly. But that’s why they keep cropping up. Presidential offers have a way of doing that.