The most ominous signal yet for the Obama health-care plan emerged in the poll by Scott Rasmussen released today. While public support for the plan fell to a new low (42 percent support, 53 percent oppose -- down five points in two weeks), the elderly emerged as the strongest opposition group. Those over 65 rejected the plan by 39 percent to 56 percent, while almost half -- 46 percent -- said they were "strongly opposed" to it.
The group that supports the plan most strongly are those likely to be least affected -- voters under the age of 30, 67 percent of whom support the proposals.
The Democratic senators and congressmen can well choose to ignore polls. Polls go up. Polls go down. They may figure that the public will have moved on by the time they run for re-election, particularly those senators who are not up in 2010. With four or six years to go in their terms, they can afford a relaxed view of polling data.
But the Democratic Party as a whole cannot afford to ignore a massive defection in the ranks of the elderly, one of its key building blocks. Ever since the New Deal coalition was cobbled together by FDR, the elderly have been a major component. Worried about Republican designs on their Social Security, they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. But the Obama proposals, which many see correctly as a major cut in Medicare, might be seminal in driving them en masse away from the Democrats.
The Democratic Party is built on six pillars -- blacks, Latinos, single women, young people, union members and the elderly. If legislation threatens one of those pillars, it threatens the stability of the entire partisan structure. And Obama's health-care reform seems to do just that.
With 40 percent of the savings in medical spending coming from Medicare, the senior citizens of America are coming to see the Obama proposals as an assault on their health-care system. Since their needs are fully met by Medicare, they see no need for monkeying with the system and are highly suspicious of any changes. When they watch as their fellow seniors attend town meetings to protest to their congressmen about these cuts and are labeled "un-American" for their pains, their alienation from the Democrats just grows.
The fissure Obama is driving between his party and the elderly will not soon heal. When the elderly change their voting habits, they tend to do so for a very, very long time. Even senators who are up in 2012 or 2014 should worry that their votes for the Obama plan could doom their ability to attract elderly support.
As to the young people who back the plan, once they learn that they will have to pay steep premiums for health-care coverage, whether they want to or not, their support is likely to cool. Under the bill, for example, those making $30,000 a year would have to pay up to 7 percent of their income in health-insurance premiums before they could get a government subsidy. A $2,100 bill for such a young person might seem affordable to Obama, but perhaps not to them. Thus, the legislation may well come to be seen as a tax on the young, another of the key constituencies of the Democratic Party.
The cost of Obama's health-care changes just keeps growing -- financially and politically.