WASHINGTON -- It is said only in hushed tones and not by anybody of prominence, but a few brave souls in the Bush administration admit it. President Bush's Medicare drug benefit that went into effect Jan. 1 looks like a political blunder of far-reaching consequences. Furthermore, these critics assign major responsibility to Karl Rove.
The hideous complexity of the scheme, which has the effect of discouraging seniors from signing up, is only the beginning of difficulties it entails for the president and his party. It will further swell the budget deficit without commensurate political benefits. On the contrary, the drug plan may prove a severe liability for Republicans facing an increasingly hazardous midterm election in November.
This program looks less like a bump in the road than a major pothole on Rove's highway to permanent majority status for the Republican Party. As Bush's principal political adviser, Rove has a brilliant strategic mind and can take credit for crafting the 2000 and 2004 presidential election victories. The drug plan was an audacious effort to co-opt the votes of seniors, reflecting Rove's grand design of building on the electoral majority by adding constituency groups. By failing to win new supporters while alienating old ones, the drug plan betrays a flaw in Rove's strategic overview and points to potentially disastrous consequences.
This is the winter of Republican discontent, even if it is not openly conceded. GOP members of Congress live in terror of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal touching them. Once House Republicans return from their global junkets in about two weeks, they face increasing pressure to elect a new majority leader to replace Tom DeLay. The Bush Social Security reform concept lies strangled in its crib, while his tax reform did not even get that far. In this atmosphere, the consequences of passing the drug benefit two years ago become unpleasantly clear.
Just before Christmas of 2003, the White House and the House Republican leadership forced the drug benefit down the throats of unhappy conservatives. In a memorable pre-dawn session, resisting Republican House members were threatened with dire consequences and offered rich rewards as the roll call was held open for more than an hour to erase a 12-vote deficit.