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A War Between the Generations

11:35 AM, Aug 17, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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“Old age puts more wrinkles in our minds than on our faces; and we never, or rarely see a soul that in growing old does not come to smell sour and musty. Man grows and dwindles in his entirety.”—Montaigne

Before the sun had set on Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan, the Obama campaign was out with ads talking of the “End Medicare as we know it.” In the last election, the Obama message was one of idealism and hope, aimed at the young. This time around, it is targeting older voters with a message of fear and dread. The Obama strategists cannot be accused, certainly, of wanting to fight the last war. But, then, “Yes we can” is bogged down in the mud of a 12 percent unemployment rate among the young who went to school on borrowed money and having graduated, cannot find a job and wonder how they will ever pay the money back.

So this time it is all about saving Medicare as we know it, and the campaign mobilized quickly in Florida to make the argument and a commercial.

Well, like they say, ‘You have to hunt where the ducks are.’ And the greatest haul of voters to frighten about the end of Medicare would be in Florida, since that is where you go to live out your life if you have survived until retirement. In the first of what will doubtless be many, many short commercials – short in length and subtlety – a nice lady, obviously a senior, talks about how the election of Romney and Ryan would mean, for many, being forced to choose between going to the doctor and eating.

The battle, then, will not be waged on the high plains of ideas and policy.   The Obama campaign is looking for that emotional chord that is the dark analogue of what worked the last time. Back then, we were all in this together. This time, you are on your own, especially if you are a “senior,” because “they” are out to take everything – to include your life – away from you. It is sort of breathtaking, really. A seamless Jekyll and Hyde act. 

And who knows? It might work. It won’t fail, certainly, for lack of conviction or effort on the part of the Obama campaign, which believes in the message precisely because it might work and … well, it is the best they’ve got.

But you do wonder if, in their cunning, the Obama strategist might have neglected one thing—namely, human nature. 

We are all about self-interest and that’s a reliable way to appeal for votes. “I promise, as president, to give you … whatever,” has been the mantra Chicken in every pot, car in every garage, all the free health care you want or think you need.  But as the work of the socio-biologists, beginning with E.O. Wilson, demonstrates, we are also about something in our genes that calls up altruism, in belief and in deeds.  

Most of those Florida “seniors” have children and grandchildren.  And even if they don’t call or come to visit, it is no secret that they are struggling and that their struggles will become more difficult as the country runs larger and larger deficits to pay for what we like to call “entitlements.” And the Obama Florida ads capture perfectly the spirit of that euphemism. The people in the ad believe themselves entitled. To a continuation of “Medicare as we know it.”

But how many seniors are comfortable with the notion that their entitlement rests on the crippling indebtedness of their children and grandchildren? The idea might pass muster at headquarters of the AARP and in the high ranks of the Obama campaign. But among real people, with real children and grandchildren? 

How many of them really believe that the only alternatives are what we have now and having to choose between eating and going to the doctor?  They are “seniors,” for God’s sake, which means they have lived long enough to know something about reality. They aren’t likely to fall for “hope and change” and they shouldn’t be scared to death when some vote-starved politician tells them that the choice is between his “plan” and a cold, pauper’s grave.

Anyone old enough to be a “senior” is old enough to know that you cannot have everything and there are real-life consequences to behaving as though you can. And is old enough, possibly, to remember that when Medicare was launched, the tab was $3 billion. A congressional committee estimated that by 1990, that number would be $12 billion. The estimate was off by $95 billion.

That is “Medicare as we know it.” One suspects that there are a lot of “seniors” in Florida who aren’t entirely oblivious to the fact that Medicare, itself, will end “Medicare as we know it,” and that before it does, it will put a heavy burden on the people they brought up and love. 

And, being “seniors,” they don’t scare all that easy and are willing to sit still for some grown-up talk about what is to be done.

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