Nowhere is the fallout from President Barack Obama's healthcare proposals more evident than among the elderly, and nothing is more dangerous permanently for the Democratic Party than their increasing disaffection.
A Wall Street Journal poll taken last week reflects a gain by Republicans in party identification, closing the gap from 40-33 in April in favor of the Democrats to a Democratic margin of only 35-34. The data reflects that one-third of this six-point closure of the partisan gap comes from a major shift among the elderly — the only demographic group to have moved dramatically.
In April, the elderly broke evenly on their party identification, with 37 percent supporting each political party. Now the Republicans hold a lead, at 46-33. This 13-point closure among the 14 percent of the vote that is cast by those over 65 represents two of the six points of closure nationally.
No other group changed nearly as much. Neither liberals nor minorities nor any other age group moved nearly as dramatically as did the elderly. The Journal's pollsters noted that "perhaps the most striking movement is with senior citizens."
The Democratic Party, led by Obama, is systematically converting the elderly vote into a Republican bastion. The work of FDR in passing Social Security in 1937 and of LBJ in enacting Medicare in 1965 is being undone by the president's healthcare program. The elderly see his proposals for what they are: a massive redistribution of healthcare away from the elderly and toward a population that is younger, healthier, and richer but happens, at the moment, to lack insurance. (Remember that the uninsured are, by definition, not elderly, not young and not in poverty — and if they are, they are currently eligible for Medicare, Medicaid or SCHIP and do not need the Obama program.) The elderly see the $500 billion projected cut in Medicare through the same lens as they viewed Newt Gingrich's efforts to slice the growth in the program in the mid-1990s.
In the wake of his Sept. 9 speech to Congress, the fundamental equation has not changed: He is cutting Medicare spending and using the money to subsidize coverage of those who are now uninsured but cannot afford to pay full premiums. It is this equation that has the elderly up in arms.
And our seniors correctly understand that you cannot extend full health benefits to some portion of the 50 million who live here and lack insurance without causing rationing of existing health services unless you expand the number of doctors and nurses and the amount of medical equipment.
When President Harry Truman first proposed compulsory health insurance in 1949, he coupled his proposal with a big increase in federal aid to medical education. He grasped the fundamental reality that you cannot expand coverage without expanding the number of people who provide the service — unless you are prepared to resort to wholesale rationing.
If Democratic senators and congressmen believe that the elderly will recover from their Republican tendencies by Election Day 2010 — or even by 2012 or 2014 — they misjudge their senior constituents. The elderly are the group most dependent on government services, and they follow politics with an attention that only the needy can give.
They will not forget if the Democrats push through cuts in Medicare and then ask for their support in the next election. Their memories are long and they turn out in huge numbers. Until now, these traits have worked to the advantage of the Democrats. Now they are increasingly likely to deliver Congress and the White House to the Republicans.
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