Now we’re in the presidential campaign’s silly season. The primaries are over; the conventions yet to come. Americans are tuning out politics and dialing in baseball and the Olympics, vacations and the price of gas.
Senator Barack Obama is traveling abroad, demonstrating that he really is a responsible driver. And Senator John McCain seems intent on running into every pothole in the road. This week, he published an op-ed in the New York Post slamming Obama for agreeing with the Iraqi Prime Minister that it is time to bring the troops home by 2010. Sure, McCain admitted, “Iraq’s army will be equipped and trained by the middle of next year,” but it will still need a lot of help. “The Iraqi air force, for one, still lags behind, and no modern army can operate without air cover.” Particularly not against the fearsome al-Qaeda Air Force. And McCain didn’t even mention the need to build Iraq a blue water navy. The $3 trillion Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz estimates we’ve squandered on the war — about a billion a day in direct and indirect costs — aren’t nearly enough.
Americans will begin to tune into the election again around the conventions. And in the fall, they’ll start to take a closer look at who the candidates are and what they believe. Issues matter less in this assessment than broad measures of the candidate’s character and sense about whether he has a clue.
In this assessment, I suspect that one issue, seldom mentioned now, is going to matter a great deal by November. Iraq will be big no doubt; the economy bigger. But health care may just be the pothole that cracks up McCain’s Straight Talk Express.
People worry a lot about affording health care. Workers accept lower wages with employers that offer health care. They hang onto lousy jobs to keep their health care. Most labor negotiations and disputes center largely on the costs of health care. On this issue, attention is paid over kitchen tables across the country.
So this fall, Americans will discover an inconvenient truth about John McCain. He wants you to lose your employer-based health care. He thinks you aren’t sufficiently conscious about the cost of your health care, and you are using too much of it.
His plan is designed — with sugar and sticks — to push you to negotiate on your own with the friendly insurance companies. He’ll give you a tax credit — $2,500 for an individual, $5,000 for a family — to help you pay the price. And he’ll revoke the tax exemption for any health benefits your employer provides. Under his plan, those benefits will be taxed as income. McCain says this will reduce our health care expenditures. He might be right. His preferred option — health saving accounts — generally feature low monthly payments and very high deductibles. People tend to insure themselves against catastrophe and take a chance on routine health care.
On average, health savings accounts will work pretty well if you are young and healthy and lucky. But if you are sick, if you have suffered serious illnesses in the past, if you have what insurers call a “pre-existing condition,” or if you are older and at higher risk, you’re in trouble. For many, insurance won’t be available at any price. That’s why Elizabeth Edwards noted that, neither she nor McCain would be eligible for coverage since both have struggled with cancer. Many more will find adequate coverage unaffordable. Others will have to wrestle with choosing between paying to see a doctor or buying the weekly groceries. You’ll be more “sensitive to price,” but you might not think that a good thing.
McCain extols the benefits of private health insurance, but he’s never had to negotiate with insurance companies. He’s been on government-provided health care virtually his entire life. He was raised on military health care, as the son of an admiral. He then went to the Naval Academy and to the military. A year after leaving the military, he was headed to the Congress and enjoying the best government-supplied health care of all.
For the nine of 10 voters that have some kind of health insurance at work, the contrast will be clear. Obama will give them a choice between the health care they have and being able to buy into a public plan, something like Medicare. McCain will tax their employer based health care, and give them a break to negotiate their own deal with the insurance companies. At the same time, he will liberate the insurance companies from the state-based regulations that have provided some protection for consumers.
Invest in the Iraqi Air Force. Tax employer-based health care. Liberate the insurance companies. Leave you on your own on health care. If this keeps up, voters may decide it is time to take the keys away from the Straight Talk Express.
This column was first published in The Huffington Post.