Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Just when it seemed everything was turning sour for President Bush, according to the polls, a large and influential voting bloc is giving one of his chief domestic reforms surprisingly high marks.

For months, stories about Bush's Medicare prescription drug program were uniformly negative: Seniors found the sign-up process too confusing, few were applying for the program, and the cost savings, if any, were minimal at best.

But now the story is that scores have signed up, 29 million at last count, and a large percentage of seniors say they are saving a great deal on the drugs they purchase through the discount program.

Contrary to those network news reports about the difficulty in applying for the program (apparently they could not find anyone who liked it), the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 74 percent of all seniors said they had "an easy time" signing up, compared to only 24 percent who said that it was too confusing.

As for all those reports suggesting that the discount savings were small to nonexistent, this poll found just the opposite. A sizeable 63 percent said they were saving "a lot" or "some," compared to 26 percent who said their drugs were just as expensive.

But perhaps the most authoritative poll of them all is the one conducted by the AARP, the politically powerful senior-issues lobby that backed the prescription-drug reforms during its passage in 2003. The AARP poll, released last week, reported that 78 percent of seniors who have signed up for the benefits were happy with its results. Only 20 percent voiced their disapproval.

That's pretty impressive by any standard, strongly suggesting that the early gloom-and-doom stories about the program's problems were premature.

Those stories reminded me of the early news reports about the airline deregulation program that began under President Jimmy Carter and was pushed through Congress by an unholy alliance of liberals, who included Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and free-market conservatives who wanted to open up the industry to more competition.

But as the deregulatory reforms were getting under way, the big three news networks began running a litany of stories similarly reporting how confusing it all was and how airline passengers were getting ripped off.

The classic wrong-headed story at the time was aired on CBS News, which was introduced by anchorman Dan Rather this way: "What price airline deregulation? Meredith Viera takes a look at the confusion it has caused."

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.