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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Last week, I had to do one of those triple-takes at the TV screen. There was Dick Morris complaining to Sean Hannity about how the Democrats were going to cut back Medicare spending by $500 billion. I rubbed my eyes and thought, “Wait, aren’t the Democrats the party that tries to scare seniors by talking about cuts to Medicare–what’s going on here?”

I’ve written previously about seniors and the health care debate, and specifically with the 2010 elections in mind. We know that seniors are the most skeptical age cohort when it comes to health care reform; that may be a generational effect, or it may just be that as the age cohort most dependent on government subsidization they are most risk-averse, or change-averse–even if only as a matter of reflex.

But the specter of Republicans essentially running to the left of a Democratic President and Congress borders on the surreal. In a front page piece today, the Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery writes about this role reversal:

After years of trying to cut Medicare spending, Republican lawmakers have emerged as champions of the program, accusing Democrats of trying to steal from the elderly to cover the cost of health reform.

It’s a lonely battle. The hospital associations, AARP and other powerful interest groups that usually howl over Medicare cuts have also switched sides. Last week, they stood silent as the Senate Finance Committee debated a plan to slice more than $400 billion over the next decade from Medicare, the revered federal insurance program for people over 65, and Medicaid, which also serves many seniors…

Americans 65 and over have long been among those most critical of Obama’s reform plans, and a key factor is their concern about Medicare, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll conducted this month. Fifty-six percent of seniors said they thought reform would weaken the Medicare program. With seniors likely to make up nearly 20 percent of the electorate in 2010, Republicans see Medicare as a potent campaign issue. In the Finance Committee, GOP senators moved repeatedly to strip the spending cuts from the bill.

Obama and other Democrats have assured seniors that the cuts will skim off a small margin of waste and inefficiency without affecting services. They say the cuts will actually strengthen a program that is rapidly outgrowing its primary source of funding — the payroll tax — and threatens to exhaust the surplus taxes accumulated in the Medicare trust fund by 2017. Cutting payments to providers, they argue, can help stabilize Medicare finances.

Is this smart strategy for the GOP?

In the short term, the answer has to be “yes.” Seniors tend to have less of a drop-off effect between presidential and midterm cycles. Senior citizens are also whiter than younger generations, which in part both explains why they supported John McCain at higher rates than any other age cohort in 2008, and why they are the best possible voting block for the GOP to begin any recovery.

But I have to ask: Are there not risks to this strategy? Specifically, does it not further cement the GOP’s image as an aged, out-of-touch coalition? Also, how is the GOP defense of cuts to Medicare not creating at least some dissonance with the very protesters who turned out for town halls and the recent march on Washington complaining about a too-big government getting bigger? (I suppose I’m presuming that people complaining about big government are, in fact, able to identify such contradictions; surely, some are not.)

Then again, maybe the risks are low and the upside for self-described small government Republicans far too tempting to pass up. In a recent poll analysis, ABC News’ Gary Langer confirmed the level of apprehension–downright fear, you might say–among the 65-plus set:

*56% of seniors think “reform would weaken the Medicare program,” compared to 37% of those under 65 who do.

*Opposition to reform generally is 61% among seniors, just 45% for everyone else. For the public option specifically, 59% of seniors oppose it, while just 39% of those under 65 do.

*62% of seniors say “reform will do more harm than good,” compared to 41% for those under 65.

*60% of seniors say reform will mean “too much government involvement” health care, with just 43% of those under 65 agreeing.

Then, Langer’s key graph: “We’ve further sussed this out with a regression analysis testing the predictive strength of views about the impacts of reform, and basic demographic variables, on opinions about reform overall. Result: Among seniors, the single strongest independent predictor of opposition to reform overall, and to a public option in particular, is the sense it’ll weaken Medicare.” (emphasis added)

And there you have it. For seniors, opposition to reform is related partially to fears about big government or deficits, but secondarily to worries about government tinkering with Medicare. Republican politicians and operatives can read these poll numbers too, of course–which goes a long way toward explaining why the GOP has taken to scare-mongering senior citizens about Medicare with a relish that would make even many Democratic consultants blush.

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