Obama's Senior Moment: An Age-Old Headache

History dictates that angering seniors could spell doom

By Robert A. George
|  Wednesday, Oct 6, 2010  |  Updated 9:21 AM CDT
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The Obama Presidency in Photos

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President Barack Obama listens to a question at a town hall meeting August 11, 2009 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Listening, yes, but is he reading signs suggesting that seniors are not quite listening to the Democratic Party promises on health care?

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Forget about the Alamo, the Maine or Pearl Harbor. 

Over the next few weeks, as Democratic members of Congress attend various town hall meetings and discuss health care reform, they might want to "Remember the Rostenkowski!"

A few years before he became the poster child for corruption in a House of Representatives that had been run by Democrats for four decades, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) was the cautionary tale for the wrong way to do health-care reform. The aptly-named "Catastrophic Health Care Act of  1988" blew up in Democrats faces when seniors realized that the price for increased coverage for catastrophic illnesses and a rudimentary prescription drug benefit would be increased Medicare payments.

Think today's town hall meetings are intense?  It was nothing compared to the scene of angry seniors descending upon Rostenkowski, then-chairman of House Ways and Means, blocking his car and preventing him from driving away that -- all of it broadcast across the country.  

Terrified House members overwhelmingly repealed the Act. 

In 1995, as part of the Contract With America, Republicans tried to reform Medicare, introducing various choice options into the program. Democrats noted that the amount  of money Republicans promised to save was suspiciously close  to the amount of money the party was promising in tax cuts. They convinced seniors that the GOP's plan  would undermine Medicare, not save it. Seniors bought the argument. Despite Republicans having majorities in both the House and Senate, the Medicare plan went nowhere. 

Now, Obama faces a similar problem.  It's not just the contentious nature of the town halls that should trouble Democrats; it's who is showing up: Those tough seniors. Obviously, not the same seniors as twenty years ago, but the problem remains the same. To pay for the health-care plan, Democrats hope to trim hundreds of billions out of Medicare.  

And Obama might not have the back-up with seniors that he thought he did.  The AARP stated Tuesday that Obama's assertion in the New Hampshire town hall earlier that day that the senior's organization supported Democratic reform proposals was not quite accurate. The White House agreed that Obama had "misspoke." 

Seniors don't have the ability to storm the White House, but their turnout in town halls may have the same metaphorical impact on health care overhaul as the "Rostenkowski riot" did two decades ago -- prevent it from getting out of the driveway.  This time, though, there won't be a law to repeal, it will be a bill that may not even see light of day in the first place.

New  York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots.  Follow him on Twitter.

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