Editorial: Attack ads fuel an unhealthy debate

  • Updated: September 21, 2012 - 7:36 PM

Medicare, focus of latest howler, needs honest discussion.

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Chip Cravaack.

Photo: Richard Sennott, DML

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With its "Phantom of the Opera"-style music, the latest attack ad against Democratic congressional candidate Rick Nolan is meant to inspire gasps of horror. Instead, the ad, paid for by former Sen. Norm Coleman's political action committee, has delivered one of the biggest, if rueful, laughs of a campaign advertising season that is only beginning.

It's clear that voters in Minnesota's hotly contested Eighth District race must brace themselves for a deluge of dubious allegations, often in ads created and funded by independent groups. Nolan's Republican opponent, freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack, has also been the target of a misleading attack ad, from a Democratic political action committee. That ad inaccurately accused Cravaack of charging admission for a town-hall-style meeting. It was pulled recently by WCCO-TV.

Medicare, of course, is a favorite topic of distorted scare tactics by both parties.

The commercial targeting Nolan is nearly unavoidable. Against a backdrop of grainy images, the score rises menacingly as the female narrator outlines Nolan's supposedly "dangerous ideas." The coup de grace: In the 1970s, Nolan allegedly supported replacing Medicare with a "European-style health program."

But this verbal punch is actually a punch line. Medicare, America's health insurance system for senior citizens, is a European-style health program.

It's government-run. It's financed mainly through taxpayer dollars, though enrollees do contribute to their care costs. It provides universal coverage for those of qualifying age. It dictates coverage and prices paid to providers. It has a powerful bureaucracy.

While Medicare relies on private doctors and hospitals (unlike Great Britain, for example), it still operates similarly to the publicly-funded, publicly-administered "single-payer" health systems employed by a number of European nations and Canada.

Coleman's group, the American Action Network, is clearly trying to capitalize on a head-scratching disconnect apparent with the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Amid all the warnings that health reform will lead to "socialized medicine," Medicare already is a big socialized health care program in the United States, and we have several others, such as Medicaid and the veterans health system. As a nation, we generally like them.

That's why Republicans and Democrats are in cage match to outdo each other as Medicare's staunchest defenders. The anti-Nolan ad is the latest iteration of this, and one of the more nonsensical.

Nolan, who represented Minnesota in Congress in the 1970s, co-sponsored a bill that championed a single-payer system for the whole country. Nolan remains a single-payer backer if other reforms don't work first. Whether this makes him a "radical," to use the ad's language, is open for debate. But suggesting that Nolan, who essentially was advocating for Medicare for all, is opposed to Medicare is ridiculous.

Nolan's age should add to voters' skepticism about the ad. He's 68. Why would he oppose a program that he qualifies for?

As for the "Obamacare" cuts to Medicare that the ad also big-deals, these reductions will curtail the growth rate in Medicare spending, and do not cut benefits. The budget passed by the Republican-controlled U.S. House aims to extract similar savings from Medicare -- one of the biggest items in the federal budget.

GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan also has proposed Medicare changes that would increase private insurers' role in the program and, potentially, leave enrollees with significantly more out-of-pocket expenses.

It's unrealistic to expect political ads to take the high road, but the fear-mongering engaged in by both parties over Medicare is particularly disappointing. Neither party is proposing to eliminate Medicare. But changes to the program are inevitable as health care costs continue to rise and as millions more baby boomers rely on it.

Consensus is key to reforming this popular program. The long advertising air war ahead before the election looks certain to distort divisions and delay sorely needed progress.

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  • WATCH THE AD

    To see the American Action Network ad on Medicare and Rick Nolan, go here.

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