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Medicare arguments key for both parties

Elena Palma (foreground) is among many residents at the David Barksdale Center in Tampa focused on Medicare.John Tlumacki /Globe Staff

TAMPA — Elections are usually about change. But one of Mitt Romney’s most important messages at the Republican convention this week might be this: “Nothing changes for current seniors or those nearing retirement.”

That is the mantra that the Romney campaign has been emphasizing since the pick of Paul Ryan. It is an effort to counter charges from President Obama’s campaign that the Wisconsin congressman’s proposal to replace Medicare with a voucher system — an idea also embraced by Romney — would hurt senior citizens. Romney’s campaign is spreading its message, particularly in senior-heavy states such as Florida, that its plan would not affect those 55 years and older.

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Democratic Party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz said in interview that the Romney campaign “is lying” when it says its plans would not affect today’s seniors.

To the contrary, she said, seniors could lose thousands of dollars of annual new benefits created by Obama’s health care plan if Republicans succeed in repealing it. But she said seniors “haven’t fully absorbed the impact of how much the Romney-Ryan [plan] would hurt them,” and she vowed an all-out effort to rebut the Republican message in the two months before Election Day.

The election could be determined by which party succeeds in defining the stakes for older Americans. Seniors, once thought to be reliably Democratic, have been trending Republican in recent years. After Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the senior vote in their elections, Republican presidential candidates won the senior vote by five points in 2004 and eight points in 2008, according to exit polls. As of last week, Romney had an eight-point lead among seniors, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and his campaign is trying to build that into a larger margin that could prove the difference on Election Day.

Perhaps nowhere has the debate about Medicare echoed more loudly than here in Florida, where 17 percent of the state’s residents are 65 and older, the highest such proportion nationwide. A microcosm of that debate could be heard just a few miles from the convention hall in downtown Tampa, where a quartet of friends gathered Wednesday morning at the David Barksdale Senior Center, a sprawling building in the shadow of an interstate highway.

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As they played dominoes and discussed the presidential campaign, the foursome made clear they had heard the political messages, sometimes chorusing the talking points of each party, and underscoring the central importance of Medicare in their lives.

“Why do they always pick on Medicare?” asked Enrique Garcia, 69, who has not decided which candidate to support. “We work all our lives to have the retirement and the first thing they pick on is Medicare for future generations.”

Elena Palma, 87, a Romney supporter, fingered her dominoes as she replied: “Medicare is very important to me. I heard they are going to [change] it on the next generation, not this generation. But if they have to change it for the benefit of the country, I agree, anything that is in favor of the country. We cannot be selfish.”

Garcia remained skeptical that Romney, if elected, would not change benefits for today’s seniors.

What the four agreed upon was their government-provided health care plans should not be interrupted, and it is on that point that the political parties are trying to shape the discussion.

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While the senior vote has been trending Republican, younger voters are more Democratic — but they typically do not vote in the same proportion as seniors, further magnifying the importance of the votes of older Americans.

“The two generations have flipped,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of government at the University of South Florida in Tampa who studies voting trends. “For years it was the older voters who were solidly Democratic. Now it is the youngest.”

Romney’s campaign not only has emphasized that those 55 and older will not be affected by his plan, but also has asserted that Obama has raided Medicare by cutting $716 billion and transferring those funds to “Obamacare.” In fact, Ryan’s budget plan earlier this year included the same cut, complicating Romney’s message, but the campaign says Romney’s view is the operative one, and it has become a key line of Republican attack.

“The only person who has cut Medicare in this race is Barack Obama,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.

Democrats said the president’s plan does not directly cut an individual’s benefits, but instead trims payments to insurance companies and hospitals and imposes antifraud measures.

But the Republican strategy of portraying Obama as the one who is cutting Medicare has proved effective in the past, with the GOP picking up seats in the 2010 midterm election in part by making a similar argument.

Seniors “were scared to death by Republicans,” said Edward Coyle, chief executive of the Alliance for Retired Americans, a 4.1 million-member group founded by labor unions. He said the Democrats’ poor showing in 2010 was due partly to Republican attacks on Obama’s health care plan, including suggestions that “death panels” would determine whether older people received treatment for their illnesses, a charge that Obama rejected.

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Wasserman Shultz said Democrats plan to do much more during this election to explain the benefits of Obama’s health care plan.

She said, for example, that the Obama plan includes a provision that already saves many seniors up to $3,000 annually in prescription drug costs, as well as thousands of dollars worth of health screenings. She said Democrats also plan to explain that even if the Romney-Ryan Medicare plan doesn’t take effect for 10 years, it would affect many younger seniors whom she said would eventually be hurt by changes in the program.

“We are aggressively messaging to seniors how gravely they would be affected” if Republicans repeal the Obama plan, said Wasserman Schultz, a US representative whose southern Florida district includes many retirement communities. As for Romney’s Medicare plan, she said, “the seniors I represent, they are not OK with saying ‘it doesn’t affect me and I don’t care about the seniors 10 years from now.’”

Romney, in his book “No Apology,” made clear he believes providing such benefits as free health screenings and unlimited care can prove too costly for the government. “Very few grandparents who I know would ever consider ordering an extraordinarily expensive medical treatment and putting it on their granddaughter’s charge card — at a high rate of interest — but that is exactly what we are doing and it has to stop.”

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While Democrats acknowledge they are still trailing among seniors, they point to polls that show concerns about the Republican Medicare plan. For example, a Quinnipiac University poll conducted for The New York Times and CBS in Florida last week found that 50 percent of those responding think Obama would do a better job on Medicare, compared to 42 percent for Romney.

The same poll found that 62 percent of responding Floridians believe that Medicare should continue as it is, while only 28 percent said it should be changed. That seems to provide a fertile opening for Democrats to campaign against the Republican plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system.

But the poll also found that 48 percent of respondents could support at least minor reductions to Medicare to reduce the deficit, and another 11 percent said there could be major reductions. Only 35 percent said there should be no reductions. That could provide an opening for Republicans to make their argument that reform is needed and to reassure seniors that they won’t be affected by the changes.

“That’s the messaging that has gone out” from the Romney campaign, said David Paleologos, who has also studied the issue in his role as Suffolk University polling director. “The onus is on the Obama campaign to prove otherwise.”

Aside from the debate over health insurance, there are broader reasons for the shift among seniors to the Republican Party in recent years, according to MacManus, the University of South Florida professor. She said the “older old,” those in their early 70s and above, born during the time of the Great Depression, tend to be more Democratic, but they are dying off.

The “younger old,” she said, are more likely to be Republican. They have been part of a household in which both parents worked, and are more likely to be significantly invested in the stock market and less likely to be dependent upon government programs, she said.


Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish.