WASHINGTON – Republican visions of electoral gains from last year's Medicare prescription drug law have vanished, replaced by Democrats' biting criticism of GOP members of Congress who voted for the bill.
Democratic candidates are using the issue to link their opponents to drug companies and insurers, focusing on a prohibition against the government trying to negotiate lower prices with drug makers and a ban on importing cheaper prescriptions from Canada.
The Democrats have been helped by older Americans' reaction to the law, which they say is too complex and offers too few benefits, which do not kick in fully until 2006.
"That's the law Rob Simmons (search) voted for, a law that looks out for the drug industry at our expense," says a television ad for Democrat Jim Sullivan (search) in Connecticut. He is challenging Republican Rep. Simmons in a Democratic-leaning district.
Simmons has defended his vote for a law that he said benefits patients, doctors and hospitals. "The Democrats are very upset because the Republican Congress under a Republican president did something they couldn't do," Simmons said.
Indeed, the administration considered the law's Medicare drug benefit and other changes in the program its top domestic priority.
However, in a Georgia district held by Republican Rep. Max Burns (search), Democrat John Barrow has sought to make an issue of a provision of the law that cuts reimbursements for some cancer drugs. Barrow aired an ad on Savannah and Augusta television that shows still photos of an elderly man crumpling to the sidewalk.
Burns' campaign was sufficiently concerned about the criticism that it recruited Medicare chief Mark McClellan recently to take part in a telephone call with local reporters to praise Burns for his work in trying to boost the reimbursements.
What is happening in campaigns is a far cry from the predictions of Republican pollsters that Bush and the GOP majority in Congress would win acclaim and votes for delivering on an issue that has been the domain of Democrats since Medicare's creation nearly 40 years ago.
The problem for Republicans is that older people do not understand the law very well, Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. "It provides grist for misinformation and exploitation," he said.
Democrats claim they are scoring political points because older people actually do know a lot about the law and do not like much of it.
"Normally a challenger has to spend money to educate voters about an issue he wants to emphasize," said Michael Winters, a spokesman for Democratic candidate Sullivan. "We didn't have to spend any money on it. They know all about it."
Democratic pollster Alan Secrest said that in past campaigns, Republicans successfully have blurred differences on issues, including Medicare, that are traditionally strong for Democrats.
"Republicans misgauged their ability to muddy the waters on this one," Secrest said. "It's fairly easy to demonstrate the allegiance of so many Republicans to the drug companies."
In the presidential campaign, Democrat John Kerry has made more of an issue of Medicare than has President Bush.
When AARP, which backed the Medicare legislation, invited both candidates to its recent meeting in Las Vegas, only Kerry accepted. Bush had committed to attend other events, including a political rally elsewhere in Las Vegas, the White House said.
Some Republican lawmakers complained this year that Democratic criticism of the Medicare overhaul was far more effective than the administration's effort to publicize the prescription drug benefit.
Democrats had promised as much almost from the moment Congress approved the Medicare changes. "This debate is not over, it's just beginning," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said shortly after the Senate passed the bill.
The GOP also has faced a barrage of ethical concerns about the law, beginning with allegations from Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., that Republican leaders tried to buy his vote in the midst of a nearly three-hour, middle-of-the-night roll call vote last November.
The House ethics committee last month admonished House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, for improperly seeking Smith's support.
A decision in August to raise Medicare premiums by a record 17 percent added to Republicans' problems, even though the increase covers new benefits such as a free medical exam when older people enter the program.