Bush should help drug debate
© St. Petersburg Times
WASHINGTON -- President Bush is too clever for me.
When I heard he was going to North Carolina last Thursday to talk to doctors about medical malpractice, I was baffled why he would do such a thing.
Many health care issues were being debated in Congress, but medical malpractice was not one of them.
Why would he talk about malpractice when everyone else in Washington was talking about Medicare? That simply made no sense to me.
It was not until the Democrats started to howl that I realized the reason for the president's trip. North Carolina is the home of Democratic Sen. John Edwards, a former plaintiff's lawyer in malpractice suits and a possible challenger to Bush in 2004.
So the trip had more to do with politics than policy.
And to underscore the political point, Republicans offered Bush's highly controversial proposal on the Senate floor the following day as an amendment to the bill that is serving as a vehicle for discussion of how the government will provide a prescription drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries. The Senate was certain to reject it.
I admire that kind of light touch in politics, where most practitioners feel they have to beat up on potential challengers with blunt tools. But I also think it tells us something about Bush's role as a national leader.
Is it leadership for the president to use the Medicare debate primarily as a vehicle to undermine the credibility of his potential political enemies? Wouldn't Bush be doing more to protect his incumbency by simply providing leadership in finding a workable solution to the Medicare problem? Does it help to complicate a difficult issue like Medicare with another one that is even more difficult?
When Bush ran for president, he said he wanted to be judged by his accomplishments and one of them was going to be to create a prescription drug benefit for seniors. Thus I think it is fair to judge him, at least in part, by his accomplishments on this issue.
Bush would have you judge him on his leadership in creating a Homeland Security Department, not on his role in bringing about a long overdue benefit that is very important to the lives of the many Americans over age 65.
I do not fault him on how he has conducted the war or his commitment to homeland security. There are many other issues such as the tax cut, which he fought for with all of the influence he could muster. So why doesn't he bring that kind of commitment to social issues such as Medicare?
Democrats would say that Bush lacks a commitment to seniors and other groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic. I do not think Bush is that cynical. I think Bush is not yet involved in the drug benefit debate because he only wants to be identified with winning issues.
You will notice that Bush seldom ever commits himself to any initiative that is not a sure thing.
On Medicare, he never proposed any legislation of his own. He issued some very general principles of what he hoped the Medicare measure would look like, but he has not gotten his hands dirty by trying to promote a compromise. He spoke in favor of the House Republican bill only when it was clear the measure would pass.
But there is some leadership needed now in the Senate. Many senators, Democrats and Republicans, are working hard right now in a genuine effort to find a workable compromise on a prescription drug benefit. Perhaps Bush should lend a hand.
I don't expect the president to get involved in the prescription drug debate at this point, however. If he follows his usual pattern, he will wait until something is agreed upon and then step in to share the victory.
That is precisely what he did Friday night when he went to Capitol Hill once the House was close to agreeing on a trade bill. And after the bill was passed, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer responded with his typical arrogance: "What you clearly see, are Democrats and Republicans coming together and acting bipartisan for the good of the country, exactly as the president has asked them to do."
Fleischer clearly sees that attitude as presidential leadership, but I have my doubts. Bush does not want to be identified with lost causes because he thinks it will diminish his stature as president and his chances for re-election.
I think the many elderly voters in Florida would rather see him try hard and fail to create a new Medicare drug benefit, rather than simply sit back watching members of Congress spin their wheels.
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