Maybe the moral-issue debate (see below) lands squarely within the geriatric gap. If so, this makes me sad. And raises the question of whether those of us so well cared for by Medicare can find a way to wish the same for others. Not easy, when opponents of health reform are doing everything possible to ramp up the fear factor. If you’re old, and fearful, it’s hard to get beyond fear and into morality. An article by Adam Nagourney in Sunday’s New York Times asserts that Medicare recipients and about-to-be Medicare recipients are being pitted against the rest of the country in efforts to divide and defeat reform.
Certainly, the friction is driving the strategies of both sides in the health care battle. The Republican National Committee has financed a television and Internet advertising campaign directed at older Americans in places like Florida, asserting that what the Democrats propose is a threat to Medicare, would ration health care services and would involve the government in end-of-life decisions (the infamous but nonexistent “death panels”).
Democrats have responded by attacking Republicans for past efforts to cut Medicare. Mr. Obama devoted a long section in his speech to Congress on Wednesday night reassuring older voters about his plan. The retirees’ lobby AARP, which is working with the White House, last week sent letters to nine million members making the case for health care reform, officials there said.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said, “We’re certainly not going to let anyone pose as Little Red Riding Hood in reverse — let Republicans pose as friends of Medicare when they are not.” Still, Mr. Axelrod acknowledged the hurdle Mr. Obama faces as Republicans argue that his proposal to cut Medicare spending to help expand overall health coverage would result in cutting services to Medicare recipients.
“Older Americans all have coverage,” he said. “I’m not saying they don’t care about anybody else. But it’s a natural impulse to want to keep that. It doesn’t take great strategic insight to say, ‘Let’s go rattle older voters and make them oppose this.’ ”
It’s this rattling that seems not just distasteful but dishonest. As in the “death panels,” or the “they’re going to cut the heart out of Medicare.” But Nagourney goes on to concede that the geriatric generation is not, indeed, one amorphous voting bloc, and that concession is reinforced by a woman who knows a lot about us elders.
Meredith Minkler, a professor of health and social behavior at the University of California at Berkeley, contends that the whole notion of generational warfare has been exaggerated anyway: polling suggests that on issues other than health care reform, older Americans are no different from the rest of the country in how they divide on issues.
“This whole business of intergenerational conflict has been blown out of proportion,” Professor Minkler said.
I am with Meredith Minkler, who happens to be a friend of mine. But I hope that Boomers and seniors who have not been swayed by the frantic fear tactics will continue supporting health reform. Some may even see it as a moral issue. It is surely a political issue.
Democrats and Republicans have been focusing on elderly voters going back at least 50 years; this is a large and growing group that is clearly up for grabs. Indeed, it is something of a role reversal now for Republicans to be attacking Democrats on Medicare.
“The Democrats must be very concerned about this,” said Robert B. Hudson, the chairman of the Boston University School of Social Work. “What is just amazing is that Republicans, or a subset of Republicans, after 20 years of intergenerational warfare, can suddenly turn on a dime and present themselves as defenders of Medicare.”
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he did not believe that by next year Republicans would be able to make the attacks. “The very people who fought Medicare don’t have the credibility to demagogue on this issue,” he said.
Perhaps. But it will be a while until this generation gap can be measured. A year from now, the health care battle may be forgotten. The problem for the White House is that even if the geriatric gap turns out to be little more than a political blip, it is at this moment very powerful indeed — influencing greatly how Democrats who face re-election in tough districts approach what could be a very difficult vote next year.