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'Reconciliation bill' doesn't excite Americans like 'Medicare expansion' would

Democrats need to frame this mammoth bill in a way that can explain and build support for it.
Image: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol on Sept. 8, 2021.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol on Sept. 8, 2021.Samuel Corum / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

When asked this week about a recent poll that found only 10 percent of Americans know “a lot” about what’s in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill Democrats are proposing, a clearly frustrated Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded, “I think you all could do a better job of selling it, to be very frank with you.” The speaker added, “Because every time I come here, I go through the list: medical leave, climate, the issues that are in there.”

It’s not the media’s job to sell the bill. It’s the Democrats’.

I get Pelosi’s frustration, but it’s not the media’s job to sell the bill. It’s the Democrats’. And the problem for the party is both the nature of this vast, sweeping bill and the nature of Democrats themselves. Their proposal includes a veritable buffet of truly remarkable policies from expanding Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing coverage to funding pre-K to paid family leave and on and on. All those policies are vitally important, but good luck fitting all that on a bumper sticker!

Then there’s the issue with Democrats themselves. There’s an adage that if you get two Democrats in a room, you will hear three opinions. That adage applies here as seemingly each Democrat promotes portions of the bill he or she is most thrilled about: from lowering prescription drug prices to funding to combating climate change. On my SiriusXM show, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan highlighted the billions of dollars in the bill to remove lead from our waterways. Again, all of the above are needed, but the combination of all those programs doesn’t create a concise message that’s repeatable and memorable.

Democrats need to simply frame this mammoth bill in a way that can explain a central tenet of it and build support for it. They should take a lesson from Bill Clinton’s 1992 internal presidential campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid” and, in this case, use “It’s the Medicare expansion, stupid” to keep themselves on message.

Polls make it clear that expanding Medicare to finally provide our seniors with vision, dental and hearing coverage is wildly popular. I’m talking more popular than Taylor Swift, Drake and Netflix’s smash hit “Squid Game” rolled into one.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 90 percent of the public says expanding Medicare to include dental, hearing and vision should be a “top” or “important” priority for Congress. That is backed up by a CBS poll this week showing 84 percent of Americans are on board with Medicare expansion.

As the Kaiser Family Foundation has detailed, the reality is that millions of our seniors don’t have dental, hearing and vision coverage because they can’t afford it. That is big part of why nearly half of all Medicare beneficiaries — nearly 24 million people — don’t have dental insurance. The heartbreaking result is that millions of our seniors go without the medical care they need.

My late father, who was on Medicare, refused to go to the dentist to fix chipped teeth because of the cost. For the same reason, he would not visit an eye doctor and bought glasses sold over the counter of a local drugstore instead —even though it actually hurt his vision in the long run. Even though I and my sister offered to pay for the expenses not covered by Medicare, my notoriously frugal, immigrant father instead wanted to save that money for more vital things that could come up in the future.

Our seniors should not have to worry about the costs of dental, vision or hearing care. And the Democratic proposal would largely alleviate that worry.

Good luck, with the GOP (or even moderate Democrats) opposing a program that will help every senior citizen and that has nearly 90 percent support among everybody. If Republicans claim they are only opposing Medicare expansion because of deficit concerns, Democrats should be quick to counter that they are the same lawmakers who added more than $2 trillion to the federal deficit to give their wealthy donors a tax break during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Our seniors should not have to worry about the costs of dental, vision or hearing care.

That’s why it’s great to see Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, announce this week that expanding Medicare is "not negotiable." As Sanders rightly noted, "This is what the American people want." Not only would it be horrible from a policy point of view to eliminate Medicare expansion, but it would also be the definition of political malpractice.

The CBS poll also contained the good news that other parts of the Democrats’ proposed bill are very popular. Paid family leave has 73 percent support, and 67 percent of those polled support federally funded universal pre-K. The bad news is that only 36 percent say they think the Democrats’ human infrastructure bill will help them or their families. It will. They just don’t know what’s in it.

Democrats are holding a winning hand — if they make Medicare expansion the focal point of their pitch. Of course, they should also talk up the other parts of this proposed bill, but they need to take a page from the GOP and keep repeating their central message. In this case, the message should be “Medicare expansion Plus.”

That’s not just how Democrats build support for this bill; it’s also how they can win in 2022.