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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Time for Informed Seniors to Step Up — in a Big Way

Paul Waldman’s recent post “Health Care’s Public Perception Malady” at The American Prospect addresses a topic of growing concern among advocates of health care reform. Waldman’s post is mostly a lament about public attitudes towards government, and senior citizen attitudes toward government-provided health care, in particular. Waldman notes a major public opinion poll indicating seniors’ hostility to government and he adds:

A conservative might argue that the elderly’s antagonism toward government comes from their experience with it. But both Medicare and Social Security are hugely popular among their recipients. Think about the cognitive dissonance involved: I’m very happy with my Medicare coverage, and I couldn’t live without my Social Security, but don’t get that damn government too involved in health care!
Forty-four years after its passage, the success of Medicare — just to review, a big-government program that has provided health care to tens of millions of seniors who would not have otherwise had it, does so more efficiently than private insurance, has seen costs grow at a slower rate than private insurance, and is smashingly popular with its recipients — has not seemed to fundamentally alter the public’s receptiveness to anti-government arguments. Ditto for Social Security. Ditto for the Veterans Administration, which is the only truly socialized health-care system in America, and one that is considered by many health-care experts to provide the best health care in the country.
How do we account for this? It’s true that some people are just idiots and will believe almost anything they’re told. But more than that, it shows the enduring power of ideological rhetoric. When something is repeated often enough, and with enough conviction, lots of people will end up believing it, no matter the facts.

Waldman leaves it there, with the unstated implication that the wisest strategy might be to organize around this constituency. Indeed, the battle for support of skeptical seniors for health care reform has produced few gains in recent years. Of course, seniors demonstrate the most impressive voter turnout rates of any demographic group. Politicians know it, and so seniors wield disprioportionate clout in legislative reform debates.
No doubt there are ways of asking seniors health care policy questions, which will elicit less fearful responses. But Waldman’s point is hard to deny. Still, the only known cure for misinformation is education. Many seniors are well-informed about reform proposals, but it appears that many are not. But if there is any hope whatsoever, of making at least some inroads into the opposition of seniors, the support of their organizations is critical.
So what does AARP, the nation’s largest senior citizen’s organization (40 million members) counsel these days, as the battle for health security for America is being joined? The AARP web page debunking fear-mongering mythology about health insurance reform does an excellent job of exposing the myths about ‘death boards,’ ‘socialzed medicine’ ‘rationed care,’ patients’ decision authority, etc.
But any organization with 40 million members is going to have diverse views among its members, as one L.A. Times article, “Many seniors aren’t sure healthcare system needs repair” featured on its web pages makes clear. Unfortunately, the AARP mythology-debunking commitment, commendable that it is, doesn’t extend to mobilizing its members to speak out at town hall forums. The organization’s statement responding to President Obama’s recent town hall meeting is pretty much standard bipartisan boilerplate, skillfully avoiding statements of support for the more contentious measures. It’s a shame.
Certainly we can hope that the AARP will more aggressively address the fear-mongering in the days ahead, including use of direct mail, phone calls and perhaps public service ads, as well as web pages. When the Democratic health care reform bill is fully-fleshed out, very few organizations can do more than the AARP to secure it’s enactment. Regardless of what AARP or any Senior organization does, however, America needs to hear more from informed, articulate seniors favoring Democratic health reform proposals.

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