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Health Care Reform School

Old Whiteys and the 2010 Vote

New America Media, Paul Kleyman Posted: Sep 10, 2009

Editor's Note: Seasoned aging and elder issues commentator Paul Kleyman remixes the news--and misinformation--on health care reform as he pronounces "The Boomers are coming!" Many conservative news sources have distorted the stats on Obama's victory, Kleyman argues, especially when it comes to the assumption of conservatism among America's elders.

As President Obama takes to the broadcast hustings to make his case for health insurance reform, the blog-blather continues to zero in on the influence of those contorted pink faces shouting Glush LimBeck slogans at this summer's town hall fiascos.

Beneath the din of old guys and gals shouting, though, Ive also heard murmurings of ageism and racism drone like toad fish in the media night. All summer, Ive been listing to the annoying hum of the Fox TV version of these bottom-feeders an irritating fish common to coastal waters to try to cut through some of the buzz for the e-newsletter I edit called Generations Beat Online. It goes to journalists who cover issues on aging and retirement or the unretirement of the boomers. My day job at New America Media is editing the ethnic elders newsbeat.

After writing about issues in aging for more than 35 years, I cant say I was surprised to see the snarling pusses of older Americans (many genuinely riled up by worries over their future care) in the mostly suburban/rural meetings that made the 6 o'clock news. The civil ones, especially in more urban congressional districts, didn't seem to get much cable face time. (See David Carr's well honed column on this, "A Struggle Taming Any Debate," in the Sunday, Sept. 6 New York Times.)

Besides Carrs criticism of the Obama communications team for being too rational, though, the policy ranks at AARP and other groups in Washingtons elder lobby are kicking themselves for failing to anticipate the well financed rancor out beyond the Beltway. For those who dont get that the elder lobby blew this one, Ill lend them a foot.

The twisted images of seniors on screen reminded me of a page-one scene of 20 years ago, when an Illinois mob of seniors blocked the sedan of their congressman, and an elderly woman sprawled herself on the vehicles hood. The issue then involved another piece of Medicare legislation. And it was the first time that media reported cries of fearful elders now echoing through the media Keep government out of my Medicare. It was and is a cold reminder of our national need to invest in education, especially those classes in civics and history.

But its not the Fox-y distortions that concern me as much as the misguided analyses by trusted commentators. What, ask some, does the televised age gap bode not only for the current health care debate, but also for the 2010 election? Will a Democratic misstep on health care lead to a GOP resurgence in the off-year election?

Matt Bai's New York Times Magazine column (Aug. 30), titled "The New Old Guard," stumbles badly, according to political scientist Robert H. Binstock of Case Western Reserve University, the leading analyst of the senior vote in the United States.

Bai argues that "generational resistance" explains why elders got so cranky (think of Dick Cheney in a Keith Olbermann nightmare) when the 65-74 set poked out their chads last November for John McCain, by 53%-46%. Calling Bai's analysis "a vast oversimplification," Binstock explained in an unpublished letter to the Times, "all age groups of white voters aged 30 and older (hardly the 'old guard') voted heavily for McCain."

Moreover, Binstock wrote, data from the Edison/Mitofsky election-day exit poll (thats the big one commissioned by the consortium of most major media organizations) "revealed that the oldest voters, age 75 and over, were less impressed by McCain's qualifications to be president than were voters aged 40 to 49."

Meanwhile, Tom Schaller of FiveThirtyEight.com asked Friday, Sept. 4, "Will angry white seniors fuel a similar Democratic rebuke next year?" He cites an analysis by the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman, who raises the issue of today's "generation gap no, make that gulf that characterized President Obama's victory in 2008."

Schaller and Wasserman are very knowledgeable and instructive political analysts, who can get down in the gerrymandered weeds. Wasserman explains that Obama's 2008 advantage among non-white and younger voters could sump like a bad souffl next year. That's because traditionally older voters the only age group to support John McCain last year tend to head for the polls in off-years, while younger and, I'll add, less affluent people, don't.

But reporters keen on parroting the pundits on signs of impending generational warfare should look again. Wasserman says that in 1992 and 2000, "Bill Clinton and Al Gore performed just slightly better among voters 60 and older than they did among voters 18 to 29 years of age. But in 2008, Obama won 66 percent of voters 18 to 29 and just 45 percent of voters 65 and older a staggering 21 point difference."

If you saw the bait, did you notice the switch? For all the pronouncements about old folks supporting McCain, the fact is that voters 60-64 gave their nod to Barack Obama, 50%-48%. The voters ages 65-74 supported McCain by 54%-45%, which Binstock shows in his review of the 2008 vote data in The Gerontologist ('Older Voters and the 2008 Election, July 2, 2009, Gerontological Society of America, tkluss@geron.org to request a PDF).

Maybe Bai and company have moved into NeverNeverland Ranch and hope not to grow up. But do these guys understand the difference between an age group and a particular cohort? As Binstock shows, those 60-64 (the front end of those who came of age in the JFK years) voted for Obama. Those 75-plus voted for McCain but only by 51 percent. Meanwhile, the 65-75 group skewed to McCain by 54 percent. Who are these people? Binstock notes, they hit their formative teen years in the affluent 1950s of President Dwight David Eisenhower. Binstock explains that this is the same group that tilted more to Bush-Cheney four years earlier and is likely to edge toward the GOP in future votes.

Regarding 2010, I do think Schaller is right that Obama is apt to lose lower and middle income nonwhite votes for the Demos. However, he has to find a way to excite ethnic America into action again by taking his 2008 race speech to a new level in current policy contexts (health care, immigration, the economy) with some worthwhile measures. But to date, the Obama-Rahm (Emanuel) axis is avoiding race like swine flu.

Schaller, Wasserman and other political analysis might have some good points about 2010 and how the GOP can exploit the current trends, but if they see a generation gap ahead and bet on white old-guy conservatism in the future, I'd see their bet and raise them. Kennedy, Johnson, King, the Yippies, Watergate and moon rocks the aging boomers are coming, the aging boomers are coming!

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