WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson on Wednesday proposed cutting Medicare benefits for wealthy Americans as part of a larger commitment to bringing government spending under control.
The former Tennessee senator's remarks in a luncheon speech to the fiscally conservative Club for Growth followed another one of his controversial campaign proposals — indexing the growth of Social Security benefits to goods rather than to wages. Studies have suggested that such a shift in calculating cost-of-living increases could mean that today's young workers would get one-fourth to one-half lower benefits at retirement than if the current formula remained in place.
Together, the two proposals underscore that Thompson is making gaining control of spending on Medicare and Social Security benefits a foundation of his presidential campaign. While experts agree that both programs face fiscal challenges, solving the problems by proposing to trim benefits is politically risky.
In Wednesday's speech, Thompson raised the Medicare issue briefly in the context of pledging to rein in the growth of such "entitlement" programs. He said he would offer details at a later date. Across partisan lines, experts say that spiraling Medicare costs could drive its trust fund dry by 2019, much sooner than the 2042 date projected for the Social Security trust fund's insolvency.
"We have to address the question of whether or not we can stick with the same premiums and deductions for the higher-income-type recipients on Medicare," Thompson told the audience.
In a statement issued through his campaign staff later in the day, Thompson said, "Our priority should be to guarantee health insurance coverage for all seniors" but that "our country faces ever-rising and unsustainable costs related to meeting this commitment.
"To ensure Medicare's viability for future generations, we might expect wealthier seniors in the future to contribute more toward covering the costs of their own medical coverage," he said. "The provisions of Medicare Part B that tie premiums to income provide one model that could be extended to other parts of the program. The choice and competition enacted under Medicare Part D may also serve as a model for improving the system."
Adam L. Warber, an assistant professor of political science at Clemson University in South Carolina, said Thompson may be using his Social Security and Medicare stances to make the case that he's more politically courageous than his GOP rivals when it comes to offering plans to control spending.
By putting a larger burden on the wealthy when it comes to Medicare, Thompson also may be looking to appeal to more moderate-income Republicans or to independent voters. The Medicare idea could further reflect a calculation that wealthy GOP voters are either so committed to controlling government spending that they'd be willing to take a hit on government-covered health care, or that they like Thompson enough despite it.
Still, Warber thinks Thompson's course is risky.
"The question is, it is strategically advantageous to touch an issue like that, or better to deal with issues that are not as controversial?" Warber said. "I'm not sure what this actually generates for him in terms of support at this point."