The Revolt Of The Septuagenarians
Ezra Klein had a column in the Washington Post over the weekend explaining why senior citizens, who favor Medicare, oppose a government-run health insurance program for people other than them. They think Medicare will be diluted by expansion and reform. That's a fairly simple "I got mine" theory of why seniors don't support health care reform. I don't necessarily think of Grandma as a selfish bastard, however. They are as caring and compassionate as anyone else on this rock we call home. They may fear the rug being pulled out from their coverage - and on this, Democrats haven't made the sell about how seniors stand to gain big from reform, particularly through lower prescription drug spending - but I think a simple campaign showing how the grandkids won't have any hope of getting medical care under the status quo would theoretically undermine the selfishness argument. And AARP has been making their own sell to seniors. I think Klein's secondary point hits the mark a little more:
Seniors are also the most conservative segment of the population and are getting more so. They constitute not only the sole age group that Obama lost in last year's election, but also the sole age group in which his results were worse than those of John Kerry in 2004. And both Obama and Kerry underperformed Al Gore's 2000 results.
"The Roosevelt seniors are being replaced by the Reagan seniors," says Paul Begala, who helped run Clinton's 1992 campaign. A May poll by the Pew Research Center found that for the first time in 20 years, the GOP is now an older party than the Democrats.
The June Post-ABC poll asked whether respondents would prefer a smaller government with fewer services or a larger government with more services. Seventy percent of seniors -- the segment of the population with government-run health care and a government pension, also known as Social Security -- preferred a smaller government, compared with 37 percent of people 18 to 29. Seniors are the age group most solidly opposed to the public option. In fact, in the August Post-ABC poll, they were the only age group in which a majority opposed it. "Seniors are like the American West," says Julian Zelizer, a Princeton historian. "They depend on government and then say they hate it."
The age divide has animated most of the anger in town hall meetings and tea parties, which is not about health care reform but about Obama. He had a similar problem attracting senior support during the Democratic primary. Seniors as a demographic are simply more easily targeted by smear campaigns from the right, and more receptive to them. Nobody wants to talk about the role of race in all this, but I don't think it's hard to figure it out. Fear of a black President still runs deep over a generation that's more conservative in their thinking. I think Matt Bai is correct to look on the bright side:
The good news for Obama and his party, of course, is that they still enjoy an enviable level of support among voters just breaking into the work force and among those now drifting into middle age. And that means that if reigning Democrats can manage to get health care policy right this time, and maybe even add some fundamental energy reforms, they might still be able to cement more hopeful attitudes about government for generations to come, much as Roosevelt did in his day. Today’s younger voters might never be as party-affiliated as their grandparents were, but neither may they turn out to be as cynical about their leaders as their parents often seem to be. If the president has his way (which is to say, if the worst nightmares of Republicans come to pass), those voters may someday live out their retirements in Arizona or Nevada, spinning stories for their grandchildren of the days when Barack Obama was twice elected president, when government managed once again to make things better instead of worse and when politicians still bothered with these things called town halls.
But it's going to be a hard slog, because of the people who most commonly vote in elections, particularly midterm elections, today.