By Don Klein
Remember when the Rev. Jim Jones convinced his religious followers at Jonestown in the South American country of Guyana more than 30 years ago to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Cool-aid. In the end 909 people died senselessly. It was an inexplicable tragedy.
Today we have a close replica of that bizarre act of insanity and it is occurred right before our eyes first in the House of Representatives, and now in the United States Senate, by a large number of suicidal legislators.
Members of the Republican Party, 235 in the House, recently voted to end Medicare as we know it today and replace it with an unacceptable plan to subsidize a privatized health system in an effort to reduce future budget deficits.
In contrast, shortly afterward they voted to continue multi-billion dollar subsidies to extremely profitable oil companies. There was no concern about budget-cutting here.
They did not realize at the time that they were sipping their own brand of poison flavored-aid. They certainly know it now. In a special election they lost a seat to a Democrat in upstate New York, in a district which had been traditionally held by a Republican for over four decades.
As if this was not bad enough, 40 Republican senators voted the day after the New York debacle to enact the same anti-Medicare legislation. Fortunately, the Democrats hold a majority in that body and the measure failed with only five members of the GOP defecting to the other side.
The curious element in this GOP maneuver was that everyone knew the legislation had no chance of enactment from the start because it could never pass the Democratic Senate. In essence it was a gesture, not lawmaking.
And what is even more curious is that the measure, which was included in the Republican version of their budget proposal, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was certain to enrage the 35 million or so seniors who depend on Medicare and want no changes.
Supporters of the bill kept telling everyone it did not effect those over 55 years of age, and in doing so they added even more opponents to the measure – the millions of 40 to 55 years olds who didn’t want to be shortchanged when their turn came to be seniors.
Here they were with a bill that made at least half the country angry with them and which they knew would never become law, yet in brazen arrogance, Speaker John Boehner went ahead with the proposal. It was suicidal from the getgo.
When many of these congressmen and women went home during the recent recess they got an earful from their constituents. That was the first indication the measure had hit a nerve. Then, all of a sudden, the special New York race for 26th House District took a turn for the worse.
This “safe” GOP seat suddenly showed the Democratic candidate within striking distance of the Republican candidate. Then it worsened as the two seemed to tie in the polls and then the Dem pulled ahead.
The campaign focused on the effort of the Republicans led by Boehner and Ryan, to attempt to balance some part of the budget on the backs of grandmas and her contemporaries while reducing taxes for the wealthy.
The Republican candidate started taking a defensive position saying that although she supported the idea of the Ryan Medicare approach it was not necessarily going to become law. What an argument? I would have supported this bill because I knew it would fail.
On election day the Democrat was swept into office by a four point margin with voters – Republican, Democratic and Independents – all rallying behind the save Medicare banner. Did the Republicans learn a lesson?
The day after the results of the election were announced the Senate Democrats forced a vote on the measure and 40 Republican senators stepped up to take their sip of the Ryan Cool-aid. Five other Republicans had the good sense to oppose the measure. Six of those senators who voted to kill Medicare are up for re-election next year.
So if you combine all the Republican votes in both houses of Congress, 275 of them voted in favor of cutting Medicare and only nine voted to save the law. It is almost the same ratio at Jonestown in 1978 where over 900 died and only some 30 survived.
It seems when you are arrogant with power – as members of an insane religious gathering or a modern day Republican -- you cannot tell the difference between the elixir of life and suicidal poison.
The Democrats now have an easy issue to exploit in the coming presidential election year. All they have to do is show the constituents in every district where an incumbent house Republican and senator is running, except those nine who jumped ship on Medicare, proof of their commitment not to serve the people’s interests.
We can hope for the best but the modern Democrats don’t seem to have the stomach for a real fight. They failed to show any smack in the 2010 election and took a beating. Will they fail again next year? The current Democrats have the distinct ability to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
I have a simple solution. The Democrats ought to let Bill Clinton and Howard Dean loose on the nationwide campaign trail if they hope to win back the House and improve their margin in the Senate. The rest can work their home districts.