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.
Rove's aim was to entice low-to-middle income seniors who vote heavily Democratic and complain about the cost of prescription drugs. That political maneuver was translated by bureaucrats and health-care technicians into a government program so difficult to understand that someone now receiving any prescription drug care would be inclined to stick with the present program even if it seems inadequate. For many whose existing insurance does not help pay drug bills, the Bush program is only a disappointment.
An earlier Bush attempt to co-opt the opposition also failed. The "no child left behind" education bill was passed in 2001 only after considerable arm-twisting of conservatives, but it has not produced political dividends. The president remains as unpopular as ever inside the education establishment, where school administrators complain about constant testing and paperwork required by the act.
Loyalty is the watchword among Bush administration officials, particularly White House aides. Consequently, George W. Bush in the course of his working day is unlikely to hear a discouraging word.
One mid-level presidential appointee, however, laid out for me the parameters of Bush's predicament with three full years remaining of his presidency. Bush is essentially a war president, leading the nation to fight an unpopular war that promises no temporary victories much less a final one, and at best offers the prospect of withdrawal from Iraq with honor. He needs something to energize the nation in his second term, but he has failed to do that with Social Security reform and has not even tried with tax reform. There is no clear sign the president appreciates the size of his problem.
Now, to begin his sixth year in office, Medicare drug benefits come into play, a major new entitlement that offends Bush's friends and does not placate his foes. There is not much at this point that can be done about it, except to try to convince seniors and conservatives that the program is really not that bad.