President Obama's health care initiative is repeating history. No, not the failed attempt by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Right now, Obama's troubled plan is on the same shaky ground that preceded President George W. Bush' grand flop with Social Security.
The parallels are remarkably similar: A president lays out broad outlines for his top legislative priority and lets his party allies in Congress work out the details of legislation. The opposition pounces, casting the measure as an assault on a cherished government entitlement for older Americans.
In 2005, Democrats depicted Bush's proposed retirement investment accounts as a move toward privatizing Social Security. Republican unity broke down and Bush's plan went down in a heap.
Today, encouraged by internal polling in June that detected wariness among seniors on health care, Republicans are portraying Obama's overhaul plans as a threat to Medicare, the government health insurance plan for the elderly. Atop that are the discredited claims by some critics that the Democrats' legislative proposals would set up "death panels" to determine who gets treatment.
Republicans have much riding on this strategy. They hope it will drive moderate Democrats away from one of Obama's presidential centerpieces, weaken his standing with Congress on other priorities and help Republicans gain back lost seats in the 2010 midterm congressional elections.
Obama, looking to gain control of the debate, will address Congress on Wednesday.
And the Democratic Party, mindful of the potential damage from the Republican Party, is hitting back aggressively with a new ad campaign that brands Republicans as the true enemies of Medicare. But older voters might not be so easy to bring back. According to 2008 presidential election exit polls, voters 65 and older favored Republican John McCain over Obama by a 53-45 margin.
What's more, these voters participate in disproportionately large numbers in midterm congressional elections.
Bush's 2005 debacle with Social Security alienated seniors and contributed to Republican congressional defeats in the 2006 midterm elections. Republicans now hope to turn the tables and hope the health care apprehensions of seniors will last long enough to help the party regain seats in Congress next year.
Internal RNC polling done by Anderson's firm, OnMessage Inc., echoes independent polling that shows that voters over the age of 65 have become increasingly dubious about Obama's plans and are growing disaffected with the Democratic Party. A Pew Research Center poll in November 2006 showed voters 65 or older supported Democrats over Republicans 50-29. A new Pew poll shows older voters now prefer Republicans by a 51-43 margin.
Democrats and Republicans concede those numbers may not hold. A tangible economic upturn could make their misgivings vanish; a slow recovery with continued high unemployment would simply make things worse.
"From a political point of view, the real questions is not what people think today or where we are today," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "It's where they are going to be in October-November 2010."
Still, the RNC's survey data has motivated Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele to press the case with seniors. Last week, the RNC began a campaign promoting a "Seniors' Bill of Rights" that opposes cuts in Medicare and suggests Democrats would ration care based on age.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who was communications director for then-Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert in 2005, said both Bush and Obama falsely perceived they had political mandates for a massive policy undertaking.
"The problem for the two of them was they didn't go out and talk about the problem before they presented the solution," he said.
Democrats have helped advance seniors' suspicions by proposing to finance their health plan by trimming $500 billion from Medicare over 10 years. The reductions would be achieved by eliminating waste, cutting some reimbursements to providers and slicing subsidies for Medicare Advantage, a part of Medicare operated by private insurers.
Obama has insisted the cuts would not affect benefits. But seniors, aided by the Republican campaign, appear unconvinced.
Democrats concede the changes contemplated for the health care system have not been properly explained. They argue that unlike Social Security, where opposition to private accounts grew the more the public learned about them, support for a health care overhaul increases as people become more aware of Obama's plans.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee has begun airing an ad on cable television called "No Friend to Seniors" that cites efforts by Republicans to cut back Medicare. The ad is also running in the congressional districts of 10 selected House Republicans.
"We're not going to sit here and take it from a party that just four years ago tried to privatize Social Security," said DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse, a veteran strategist who himself helped lead the effort against Bush's retirement accounts four years ago.