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Health Debate Shaped by the Generations

Millennials, Americans younger than 28, provided President Barack Obama most of his popular vote margin over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. Millennials are not interested in letting ideological posturing stand in the way of “getting stuff done,— as Obama likes to say, especially in an area as crucial as health care.

Like the members of other generations, almost all millennials (90 percent, according to a Pew Research Center poll in May) believe that it is time that health care is made more accessible and affordable for all Americans. However, only a third of millennials, in contrast to about half of those in older generations, are concerned about the impact of greater governmental involvement in the health care system (36 percent vs. 47 percent). And millennials are far less likely than older generations to prefer once again deferring health care reform to avoid higher taxes or larger deficits.

The fundamental question that Members of Congress from older generations will need to answer during this summer’s health care debate is just how much they want to accomplish as opposed to scoring political points or pursuing ideological agendas.

The Senate is almost equally divided between members of the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945, and baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. Recent elections have raised the percentage of boomers in the House of Representatives to almost three-fourths of all Members.

Democrats in the House, for all of their ideological posturing, are actually led by members of the Silent Generation. Members of this generation are often risk-averse as adults and tend to prefer the bipartisan compromises that McCain, a Silent born in 1936, talked about so often during his campaign.

By contrast, almost all of the House Republican leadership is from the baby boomer generation. Members of this generational archetype tend to believe deeply in their own personal values and seek to use the political process to implement their personal ideological convictions for the whole nation to follow.

The Silently led Senate often operates as a generational bulwark against the increasingly hot passions and partisan bulldogs who serve in the House. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), born in 1941, has been determined to find a bipartisan bill that his Silent Republican counterpart, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), born in 1933, can support.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), born in 1944 and thrust into the health care debate because of the illness of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), has played the very typical role of those born on the cusp between both generations — he has been seeking to find a solution that leans more to his ideological beliefs, but one that still contains an element of compromise for the other side.

How this intergenerational interplay between the two chambers and the two parties will actually play out in the health care debate will depend on how much Obama uses his instinctive knowledge of what millennials want to convince Congress to pass something this year. It’s a classic question to which members of the Silent Generation are likely to respond with offers of compromise, even while boomers on both sides of the aisle insist on what they consider to be non-negotiable principles.

For millennials, however, the answer is clear — reform the nation’s health care system now as the next step in delivering on the kind of “change we can believe in— that their leader, Barack Obama, promised and that they expect a Democratic Congress to deliver.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows at NDN and co-authors of the book “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics— (Rutgers University Press, 2008).