[Posted by Karl]
Ross Douthat recently opined on the two faces of liberalism — the optimistic central planner and the demagogue who responds whenever the issue of the collective cost of the plans becomes an issue. RTWT, as I intend to focus on his cautionary note for this year’s election:
In parts of the conservative press, the president’s increasingly scorched-earth rhetoric is being treated as a sign of his desperation. By resorting so quickly to partisan demagoguery, this argument goes, Obama is effectively conceding that he has nothing else to run on – that his policies are unpopular, that his agenda has largely been rejected, and there is no positive case for a second term that any swing voter is likely to be persuaded by.
There is truth to this: Obama’s legislative achievements are strikingly unpopular. ***
But elections won on fear count just as much as elections won on hope. It was fear that gave George W. Bush the edge over John Kerry in 2004, and it was fear that saved the Bill Clinton from political extinction. (Clinton’s rightward pivot helped him win re-election, but his willingness to savage the Dole-Gingrich Republicans on Medicare was just as crucial to his victory.)
The election that year was a referendum on Bush: people who disapproved of him voted overwhelmingly for Kerry; people who approved of him voted overwhelmingly for Bush. In fact, the Bush approvers/Kerry voters were more numerous than the Bush disapprovers/Bush voters.
Indeed, from Cost’s data it looks like this dynamic was even more true in 1996, when only 4% of Clinton disapprovers voted for Clinton. Moreover, it seems unlikely that dynamic was due to Ross Perot’s third-party run, as 9% of George H.W. Bush disapprovers voted to reeelect him in 1992, when Perot was a bigger vote-getter.
Nevertheless, Douthat may have a point in identifying Mediscare as part of Clinton’s relative overperformance relative to the economy in 1996. In the 1996 exit polling, Medicare came in as the second-largest “top issue” to voters. However, the top “top issue” in 1996 – the economy/jobs — was the top issue to only 21% of voters, and appears to have helped Clinton.
Can Obama exploit Medicare the way Clinton did? Probably not. In 2012, the economy and unemployment are likely to be the top issue with many more voters and not very likely to help Obama. As of last month, Medicare was an asterisk in Gallup’s open-ended poll of the most important issue to Americans. More broadly, “healthcare” looks to be a secondary or tertiary issue in most polls, although Gallup suggests it could be as important as economic issues. Unfortunately, such results are of limited use, as “healthcare” is not the same as “Medicare” and the response likely encompasses things like dissatisfaction with the existence or operation of Obamacare.
Pres. Obama will probably continue to demagogue the House GOP budget on Medicare. But likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney will probably continue to point out that the unpopular Obamacare law is supposed to be funded with $500 billion in (ahem) “future savings” from Medicare. Moreover, polls from sources as diverse as Kaiser and Reason suggest the arguments that reform is necessary to save Medicare and will not affect current retirees both create potential majority support for the GOP approach.