Yes, Newt Gingrich Wanted Medicare To Wither On The Vine

May 25, 2011 3:56 pm ET — Jamison Foser

As Republicans and their allies try to convince the public that their plan to dismantle Medicare is really a plan to save Medicare, some are attempting to undermine criticism by claiming that Democrats have a pattern of distorting the GOP's approach to the program. Democrats, the argument goes, distorted Newt Gingrich's comments on Medicare in the 1990s, so they should not be believed now when they say Republicans are trying to replace Medicare with vouchers.

This argument suffers from two fatal flaws. First, House Republicans voted earlier this year for a budget that would replace Medicare with vouchers. Second: Newt Gingrich's comments were not distorted — he clearly said in the 1990s that Republicans wanted Medicare to "wither on the vine."

In 1995, Republicans argued that their plan to cut $270 billion from Medicare (while cutting taxes for the wealthy) was really an effort to "preserve, protect and strengthen" Medicare. But that argument, already dubious, was dealt a fatal blow in October when Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich made the party's hostility to Medicare clear.

Dole, who was running for president and trying to shore up support among hard-core conservatives, boasted: "If you're looking for leadership, ... somebody who has been a career conservative, long before many of them showed up around this town — I was there, fighting the fight, voting against Medicare — one of 12, because we knew it wouldn't work in 1965." That very same day, Gingrich explained that Republicans weren't trying to get rid of Medicare all at once "because we don't think that that's politically smart," but were trying to cause it to "wither on the vine."

As Democrats pounced on the comments, Republicans tried to claim Dole and (particularly) Gingrich were misquoted. Gingrich dashed off letters to newspapers that quoted him; RNC Chairman Haley Barbour tried to tell Democrats they could not quote Gingrich in an ad.

Gingrich's defense, spelled out in a letter to the Washington Post, was that his "wither on the vine" line "directly referenced the Health Care Financing Administration, NOT the Medicare program." The defense made absolutely no sense. The portion of the speech containing that line began:

Now let me talk a little bit about Medicare. Let me start at the vision level so you understand how radically different we are and why it's so hard for the press corps to cover us. Medicare is the 1964 Blue Cross plan codified into law by Lyndon B. Johnson, and it is about what you'd — I mean, if you all went out in the marketplace tomorrow morning and said, "Hi, I've got a 1964 Blue Cross plan," I'll let you decide how competitive you'd be. But I don't think very.

So Gingrich started off by saying he would "talk a little bit about Medicare," explaining that his vision for the program was "radically different," and adding that Medicare was antiquated and inadequate. Medicare — not the Health Care Financing Administration. 

Gingrich continued:

So what we're trying to do, first of all, is say, okay, here is a government monopoly plan. We're designing a free-market plan. Now, they're very different models. You know, we tell Boris Yeltsin, "Get rid of centralized command bureaucracies. Go to the marketplace." Okay, what do you think the Health Care Financing Administration is? It's a centralized command bureaucracy. It's everything we're telling Boris Yeltsin to get rid of. Now, we don't get rid of it in round one because we don't think that that's politically smart and we don't think that's the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it's going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it — voluntarily.

In short, Gingrich explained that Republicans were developing a 'very different model' from the existing Medicare system, which they expected to "wither on the vine" as a result. It's nonsensical to claim Gingrich was only talking about the financing mechanism. And, indeed, a top Gingrich aide initially acknowledged that his boss had been talking about Medicare itself:

Tony Blankley, a senior aide and press secretary to Gingrich, confirmed the Speaker's remarks but downplayed their significance.

Blankley said that Gingrich's comments were consistent with the Republican belief that most seniors will voluntarily choose to leave the traditional Medicare fee-for-service system in favor of health maintenance organizations and other managed-care networks once they discover the benefits of the reforms that Republicans have devised.

Even so, if that shift dries up fee-for-service Medicare, it will mean the end of the system as most seniors know it. Gingrich has never publicly expressed a view that fee-for-service Medicare would end, and most other Republicans have maintained consistently that fee-for-service medicine would always remain an option under Medicare.

It is important to note that contemporaneous accounts of Gingrich's attempts to explain away his blunder generally dismissed his spin. The New York Times' Adam Clymer praised Republicans for "behaving differently, more courageously than the Democratic majorities of past years" in seeking Medicare cuts but found the Speaker's explanation for his "wither" comments lacking:

Mr. Gingrich dashed off angry letters saying his remarks referred to "The Health Care Financing Administration, not the Medicare program." He did mention the health agency, calling it a "central command bureaucracy." But he seemed to be talking about Medicare when he went on to say, "We don't get rid of it in Round One because we don't think it's politically smart" — a phrase that hardly seems relevant to the future of a Federal agency.

And when he said, "We believe it's going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it — voluntarily," he seemed to be saying what he has often said before: that the elderly would prefer managed care to picking their own doctors under the traditional Medicare system. [10/27/95, via Nexis]

A subsequent New York Times article debunked Gingrich's defense in greater detail:

The fight over this commercial comes down to what Mr. Gingrich was referring to when he talked about "it" withering on the vine. Republicans maintain he was simply talking about the Health Care Financing Administration, the agency that runs Medicare. Democrats say he was clearly talking about the traditional Medicare program, in which patients choose their doctors and Medicare pays the fees. [...]   

It is impossible to know what was in Mr. Gingrich's mind when he spoke. But the context of his remarks suggests he was contemplating more than the Health Care Financing Administration "withering away." He began by describing the current Medicare plan as out-of-date, a "government monopoly plan" that stood in sharp contrast to the "free market plan" being designed by the Republicans. He went on to talk of the financing administration as "a centralized command bureaucracy" not unlike institutions in the former Soviet Union.

The full quotation that followed was this: "But we believe it's going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it — voluntarily."

People could not "leave" the financing administration as they could "leave" the traditional Medicare program. [New York Times, 11/4/95]

Gingrich's explanation ultimately didn't make sense because the "Medicare bureaucracy" is Medicare — it's the mechanism by which the government provides health care for seniors. If you replace that mechanism with an entirely different system in which the government helps seniors buy private insurance, you might (but probably won't) have a system that is at least as good as Medicare — but it isn't Medicare

Basically, Gingrich and the GOP didn't like Medicare and wanted to transition away from its fee-for-service system into a new system in which seniors would purchase coverage from HMOs — but, for political reasons, they still wanted to call it "Medicare" and claim they were "protecting" the system. Few found their spin compelling. But Republicans were persistent, and they kept claiming Democrats were distorting Gingrich's remarks (and accusing the media of "bias" for not adopting Gingrich's nonsensical defense.)

And their persistence paid off: The following summer, CNN's Brooks Jackson adopted the GOP's "Medi-Scare" terminology and blasted an AFL-CIO ad quoting Gingrich as "just dishonest," insisting: "What Gingrich really said was that the Republicans believed the Medicare bureaucracy would wither on the vine — not Medicare benefits." And so, despite the fact that contemporaneous analysis of Gingrich's comments rightly debunked his claim that he had merely been talking about bureaucracy rather than Medicare itself, the phony narrative that liberals had misrepresented Gingrich's speech as part of a "Mediscare" campaign was solidified.