Who’s For S-CHIP? Everyone, Unfortunately.

Politicians and pundits are busy folks: They’ve got fundraisers, media appearances, speeches, cocktail parties, more fundraisers — it’s a lifestyle that doesn’t leave much room for actual policy research. Hence, the invention of talking points, collections of easy to remember points of argument passed around to Congressmen and their staff, as well as friendly third parties. I never saw the Democrats’ talking points on their planned expansion of S-CHIP, the program designed to fund health insurance for children in low-income families, but I imagine the list looked something like this:

The children!
The children!
The children!
Bush is bad! (For the children!)

Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi in the House, have spent the past few months pushing for a $35 billion expansion of the program. And President Bush has spent just as long threatening to veto it, which he finally did at the beginning of October, earning him, and any Republicans that supported him, a flurry of outraged remarks from supporters of the program’s expansion. Today, Pelosi will lead a vote to overturn that veto — a vote she knows she’ll lose. That hardly matters, though, as it’s just one more opportunity to slam the president for having it in for the children.

But the accusations from the program’s supporters don’t remotely match what the president has said on the subject. And for anyone who’s serious about fiscal discipline, that’s a shame.

Liberal rhetoric on the issue has cast Bush as a malicious, fire-breathing child-hater, a capitalist overlord wielding the free-market like a pitchfork against a nation of helpless children. In a speech on the House floor, Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that if Bush doesn’t change his mind, he’ll be “giving new meaning to the words ‘suffer little children.’” Later in the same speech, she says that a Bush veto would be tantamount to saying, “I forbid struggling families in America to have health care for children.”

Meanwhile, the liberal press has been going at it too. Paul Krugman, in a recent New York Times column on S-CHIP and Republican economics, accused Bush of “minimizing and mocking the suffering of others.” Air America’s Mark Green declared that Bush had succumbed to “free-market fundamentalism.”

And, at a speech in front of the White House (in politics, subtlety rarely pays), Senator Kennedy practically went hoarse barking about how S-CHIP is “a moral issue.” “Why,” he demanded to know, “do Republicans want to strike a program that is trying to help men and women and the working families of America that make 35 and 40 thousand dollars a year? That is wrong!”

What’s really wrong here is Ted Kennedy. No matter what the Senator thinks, Bush hasn’t once mentioned shutting down the program, or even reducing it. Instead, he, like the Democrats, wants to expand it — just not by quite as much. Bush’s plan would pump an additional $5 billion into the program, expanding it by 20%.

And when Bush administration staffers talk about the issue, they don’t sound much like the gleeful torture-chamber operators that Krugman insists they must be. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told ABC that “the president’s position on this can be summarized in three words: poor children first.” And just a week and a half ago, White House counselor Ed Gillespie went on NPR to declare that Bush’s veto was “not about spending,” and that the president would be “more than happy” to consider going beyond the expansion he originally offered. I don’t know how Air America defines “free-market fundamentalism,” but this sure doesn’t sound like it to me.

If only it did. Conservatives have taken up plenty of column space decrying the Democrats’ proposed expansion of the program. Few, however, have bothered to note that Bush’s proposal isn’t much better, especially when you take into consideration his recent indications that he might be willing to spend even more than he first proposed.

And make no mistake, despite all the fluffy talk about helping children, S-CHIP is a program that should be opposed in its entirety. The Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon has argued that the program boosts drug prices for everyone in the country, as drug companies make up for the lower prices paid by the government by padding the prices for the rest of us. Meanwhile, he says, the program doesn’t help the poor, but rather encourages them to stay in the low-income brackets covered by S-CHIP. When working harder to earn more money results in a net loss, why bother?

And if capitalist villains are what you’re looking for, why not try the insurance organizations who’ve promoted the program so strongly? D.C. Examiner columnist Tim Carney recently reported that the insurance industry has spent millions lobbying for S-CHIP. That’s hardly surprising considering the huge amounts of taxpayer money that get funneled into the industry’s coffers.

Yet the White House, and indeed, most Republicans in Congress, has decided to fall in line with the Democrats’ broad goals for the program, choosing only to make weak arguments about how much additional money ought to be spent. It’s no wonder the party is in such bad shape. When all Republicans have to offer is a watered down version of program backed by Democrats, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the public doesn’t bite.

Bush, by refusing to take a tough stand against the program entirely, has allowed Democrats to use “for the children!” as a cudgel to crush him in the press, and, as today’s vote shows, they’ve been more than willing to take every opportunity to hit him as hard as they can. As a result, the entire Republican party — not exactly strong at the start — has emerged from the debate bloody and bruised.

If this is a preview of what’s to come in the debate over national health care, it will be tempting for conservatives pick up their lawn chairs and go home. Who wants to watch their team make this many mistakes in both goals and strategy? Congressional Republicans have made some minor buzz about “re-branding” the GOP as the party of economic conservatism, and Bush has recently taken to speaking in front of an oversized banner that reads, in huge capital letters, “Fiscal Responsibility.” That sounds great, but brands and slogans aren’t worth much without action to back them up.

As long as fiscal responsibility remains a banner to hang over milquetoast policies, Republicans are likely to continue to fare as badly as they have on S-CHIP. It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to. It’s time for GOP lawmakers to prove Democrats right and make Republican opposition to a program actually mean something.

—Peter Suderman is a writer and policy analyst at FreedomWorks. He blogs at FreedomTalks.

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