It’s hard to convince voters that cutting programs is going to benefit them – especially if the change will never occur in their lifetime. Austerity doesn’t poll well, and the Republican Party needs rhetorical victories to convince voters that Romney’s economic plan doesn’t mean tax cuts for the rich and PB&J for the rest.
Entitlements are the elephant in the room for this election (heck, for the last 25 years) and the candidates have been dancing around politics’ sacred cow—Medicare. Republicans have, somewhat unexpectedly, welcomed the Medicare debate with open arms. The summer brought us the familiar drill of Republicans emphasizing that Obamacare would cut $716 billion from Medicare, while the Democrats insisted that Romney and Ryan wanted to put a voucher (coupons!) system in place. Though obviously both sides of this argument are gross oversimplifications of an enormously complex economic and ethical question, the Republicans seemed to be gaining ground on the Medicare debate. A recent poll, however, showed that Obama now holds a slight lead over Romney concerning who would do a better job with Medicare. Republicans must articulate more clearly their plan for Medicare, and health reform in general, if they want to win.
Medicare (and it’s bedfellow Social Security) is a product of the 1965 Great Society experiment. The program has been subject to much tinkering and is likely to become insolvent over the next few decades. It’s a useful tool for Democrats to accuse Republicans of destroying the entire system when some of the inherent flaws of the program are cited. Unfunded liabilities mean promises that the U.S. government has made that it has no funds set aside to pay for. Medicare’s trustees put that number at about $37 trillion over the next 75 years, just for this program alone.
Sadly, Americans have a history of avoidance on Medicare. Gallup reports some disturbing trends: In 2001, 25% of Americans said they were "very dissatisfied" (the lowest ranking) with Medicare. That grew to 32% by 2012. In 2011, 34% of those polled said that the Medicare and Social Security programs were already creating a crisis for the federal government, while 33% thought the crisis would come within 10 years. Many other statistics reveal a strong unease about the stability of these programs. Despite this, 34% of Americans thought last year that only minor changes should be made, while 27% said the government shouldn’t try to control costs.
The next president will win in one of two ways: Either by pandering (again) and convincing people that we don’t have to do anything about entitlement reform yet, or by outlining a clear vision to turn Medicare into something that clearly fulfills its purpose without destroying the nation’s finances.
Although the general alarm over Medicare reform is doing its job, as expected, seniors aren’t lining up for "Hope and Change" t-shirts just yet. Obama’s job approval is at its highest (59%) among voters between 18 and 29. Voters over 65, however, gave Obama his lowest rating of all of the age groups, coming in at 42%.
It astonishes me that Americans put up with the sloppy attempt to silo Americans into single-issue voters. Women only care about birth control (thanks, but I’m kinda worried about Iran, too). Hispanics only care about immigration. Seniors only care about Medicare. In fact, jobs and the economy still poll as the top two issues of highest concern for all voters. Only 7% of all those polled said Medicare was the most important issue for them, and only 13% of seniors ranked it the number on issue. The race depends upon unifying the social issues, like entitlement, and the economic question into a coherent plan that will reassure voters and offer some kind of hope out of this mess.