Why the Tea Party Loves Medicare but Hates Obamacare

How the GOP and the Koch brothers took advantage of the Tea Party’s confused populism.

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

An early Tea Party protest in Hartford, Conn. on April 15, 2009, Tax Day. (Sage Ross/Creative Commons)

In the early days, the iconic (and ironic) image of D.C.-hating Tea Partiers was a sign reading: Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Occasionally their protest placards added a little profanity to that directive. Right now, though, Tea Partiers should be cursing their Republican bedfellows. 

The American people didn’t like the government shutdown. They wanted their National Parks open. They wanted their food inspected and salmonella outbreaks stopped. They wanted all World War II veterans to regain easy access to the monument dedicated to them. They wanted the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan to be flown to meet flag-draped caskets.

While privately laughing at a group that would demand the government keep its hands off of a government program, Republicans propped up Tea Partiers with corporate-backed groups like Americans for the Prosperous, giving them untold millions in funding.

Tea Partiers, in return, took up the Republican attack on the Affordable Care Act, seeking to deny health care for 50 million uninsured Americans while insisting no one touch their health insurance — Medicare. Last week, though, the GOP threw Tea Partiers under the bus. And the guy who shoved first was Tea Party darling Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who proposed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that House Republicans forget about defunding the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicare instead.

Soon after President Obama was first elected, a ragtag bunch of protesters, egged on by rabid right-wing talk show hosts, took to public squares with Gadsten Flags and signs protesting the Wall Street bailout, government in general and any attempt to cut Medicare or Social Security. Conservative, libertarian and business groups seized this opportunity, providing the supposedly grassroots groups with massive financial backing.

Bankrolling, schooling and organizing the motley protesters provided wealthy, right-wing ideologues like the Koch brothers with a mechanism to convert their personal agenda into what appeared to be a movement.

Early on these right wing subsidizers, from Heritage Action for America and FreedomWorks to Club for Growth and the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, opposed the Affordable Care Act. They goaded and organized Tea Partiers to protest it at town meetings across America.

Together, right-wing money and grassroots” Tea Partiers, supported GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who promised to destroy the Affordable Care Act, even though it was based on a health insurance plan Romney had instituted as governor of Massachusetts.

Unfazed when the American people rejected Romney and Ryan, the well-heeled right-wingers met in Washington shortly after President Obama’s second inauguration to devise a new scheme to kill the Affordable Care Act.

They concocted a plan to persuade conservative lawmakers to refuse to finance the federal government until Democrats and President Obama agreed to defund the act. Two weeks ago, Republicans in the House began holding the government hostage to that demand.

At first, the GOP and Tea Party thought it was all good. They hate the government, so shutting it down was fun for them. They hate the Affordable Care Act, so plotting extortion to destroy it was a kick for them.

But then, stuff started going wrong for them.

The American people didn’t like the government shutdown. They wanted their National Parks open. They wanted their food inspected and salmonella outbreaks stopped. They wanted all World War II veterans to regain easy access to the monument dedicated to them. They wanted the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan to be flown to meet flag-draped caskets.

Businessmen and women were angry too. The indefinite shutdown created uncertainty and cut profits. More than 800,000 furloughed federal workers weren’t spending money on Main Street. Untold millions weren’t visiting national parks and monuments, and thus weren’t spending at local hotels and restaurants. Businesses couldn’t get federally guaranteed loans.

While Americans weren’t happy with politicians in general, they blamed Republicans in particular. The GOP favorability rating dropped 10 percentage points in a month, to the lowest for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992.

By contrast, the Affordable Care Act seemed to get high favorability ratings. After the exchanges opened on October 1, high demand caused delays and crashes on the website where the uninsured could sign up for coverage. 

And then there was what must have felt like a real smack in Tea Party face. Koch Industries, owned by the Koch brothers, sent a letter to members of Congress Wednesday denying that Koch had supported shutting down the government to extract defunding of the Affordable Care Act. Instead, Koch claimed it supported reducing government debt and spending.

And that’s exactly what Ryan offered. Among other things, he wants to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. In the past, Ryan and Republicans have proposed privatizing Social Security and voucherizing Medicare. In both cases, the government would tell the elderly: You are on your own, grandma.” If your investments don’t work out, eat cat food. If you can’t afford the cost of medical care beyond what the voucher will pay, go lie down and die.

House Republicans last week embraced his proposal. Some Tea Partiers took umbrage at that, whining that Ryan didn’t mention their demand for the death of the Affordable Care Act.

Like their original confusion about who provides them with Medicare, the Tea Partiers have it all muddled again. They’re crying about 50 million uninsured Americans retaining access to doctors under the Affordable Care Act instead of protesting, as they did in their early days, the Republican attempt to strangle Medicare.

Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and other crucial government programs that benefit all Americans can be saved. For a start: Lift the cap on Social Security taxes so that they’re paid on all income as Medicare taxes are. Tax capital gains at the same rate wages are. Mandate competition by drug companies providing pharmaceuticals under Medicare Part D.

That is what the Tea Party should be demanding. Their signs should read: Get your dirty GOP hands off my Medicare!”

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Leo Gerard is international president of the United Steelworkers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union miner; Gerard started working at a nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appointed the seventh international president Feb. 28, 2001. For more information about Gerard, visit usw​.org.
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