Miami retiree Richard Malcy thinks Medicare works just fine, thank-you very much.
When the 69-year-old accountant’s asthma flares up, he goes to his doctor and the federal government pays the bill. The overhaul proposed by presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, wouldn’t change that. In fact, their plan would keep the program largely the same for Medicare patients at least 65 years old and everyone 10 years younger.
Malcy doesn’t buy it.
“I don’t believe a lot of what politicians say,” said Malcy, a Democrat who says he can’t trust either party. “Romney and Ryan not only scare me but confuse me.”
There lies the rub. Even though Ryan’s plan wouldn’t affect seniors, the leading voice for Medicare reform in Congress could jeopardize the Republican ticket in must-win states such as Florida with large elderly populations. Polls show skepticism about changes to Medicare increases with age, even though younger generations are likely to confront the most drastic changes to the popular program.
But Florida is very much in play in 2012 because there’s one thing that seniors distrust about as much as Medicare reform: "Obamacare." When the new Romney running mate campaigns in the nation's largest swing state on Saturday for the first time, he will drag the president’s controversial health care program on stage with him.
“I believe that instead of trying to win the argument over the Ryan plan, Republicans are trying to shift the debate to the Affordable Care Act,” said Robert Blendon, a Harvard University professor of health policy and political analysis. “Republicans may have designed their plans to relieve the anxieties of retired people, but I don’t think they will be successful. Life is complicated enough for older people, and they believe the changes could leave them worse off.”
Nowhere will the Medicare debate matter more than in Florida, where 22 percent of the 2008 vote was 65 or older and 49 percent was at least 50 years old. It’s noteworthy that Ryan will make his first sales pitch on friendly turf--at a sprawling retirement community near Orlando known for greeting GOP candidates like rock stars. Romney picked the Villages for his first trip to Florida as a presidential candidate back in February 2007. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin also chose the Villages for her Florida debut, drawing tens of thousands of seniors in 90-plus degree temperatures to a 2008 rally.
“People around here are much more worried about Obamacare than anything Ryan is doing,” said Richard Cole, chairman of one of the four Republican clubs at the Villages. “The Democrats are trying to scare everybody, but they cannot win this election with cheap theatrics.”
Indeed, Florida Democrats are sounding the alarm that Republicans are “doing away with Medicare as we know it.” That’s not exactly true. Under the plans offered by Romney and Ryan, people over 55 years old are eligible for traditional Medicare. The changes would kick in for younger people, who would have to use vouchers to buy traditional Medicare or private insurance. Critics say the vouchers wouldn’t cover rising medical costs, forcing future seniors to pay thousands of dollars more out of pocket.
Democratic pollster John Anzalone calls the GOP Medicare plan “a Florida game changer.” He pointed to a CNN poll last year that found opposition to Medicare reform was highest among senior citizens, at 74 percent. “This point is critical--most groups including seniors oppose the Ryan plan even when it’s made clear that the plan would not change Medicare for people over 55,” Anzalone said in an e-mail this week. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey this month similarly found the strongest opposition to a voucher program among people over 65 years old.
The saving grace for Republicans is that antipathy to the health care law also runs high. A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connnection Poll found 66 percent oppose the requirement to buy insurance that is the linchpin of Obama's health care reform. Asked about Medicare, 64 percent want to keep the status quo.
In an effort to keep the focus on the health care law, Republicans are accusing the president of “raiding’’ more than $700 billion from the Medicare fund to pay for his program. That figure does not represent cuts to health care benefits; it’s the estimated savings from reducing government reimbursements to hospital and insurers. “Get the facts,’ warns an Obama ad that began airing on Friday in response to Romney’s attacks.
One of the nastiest senior-scaring political attacks dates back to the 1994 governor’s race in Florida. Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles unleashed a last-minute round of calls warning older voters that his Republican challenger, Jeb Bush, and running mate Tom Feeney were threatening Social Security and Medicare. Bush lost, though he came back to win in 1998.
“It’s a staple in the Democratic playbook to scare seniors,” said Republican consultant Mike Hanna, who worked on the Bush campaigns. “After that deplorable tactic worked, Bush made a point of reaching out to seniors and explaining what he stood for. Romney and Ryan are smart to also take this head on.”
Entitlement reform is frequently described as the “third rail” of Florida politics. When attacks on President Bush’s plan to “privatize” Social Security helped Democrats seize control of Congress in 2006, one of the Republican casualties was Clay Shaw, a 26-year incumbent and the Social Security subcommittee chairman.
Republican Marco Rubio appeared to take a risk when he came out in favor of raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits in his 2010 Senate campaign. Though Rubio was leading the race when he took that position, Republicans take his victory as a sign that entitlement reform is no longer a deal-breaker with voters. The GOP also points to Republican Mark Amodei’s 2011 victory in Nevada’s second congressional district in which he successfully fended off Democratic charges that he would devastate Medicare by attacking health care reform.
“The Obama campaign thinks they can pander to seniors, and recent elections show that’s not the case,” said Alberto Martinez, a Romney spokesman in Florida and a veteran of the Rubio campaign. “Seniors have worked their whole lives to build up this country and now they are seeing it squandered and worrying about their kids and grandkids under Obamacare.”
The other part of the Republican strategy for defending Medicare reform could be described as playing the mom card. Rubio rarely mentions his support for overhauling Social Security without reassuring voters that his own mother depends on the trust fund. Amodei countered the Medicare attacks by keeping Ryan's plan at arms' legnth--and by featuring his mother in television ads. “You should know that I will work to improve and support the program,” he said. “You better, Mark. I’m counting on you,” his gray-haired mother responded.
When Ryan makes his debut on the campaign trail in Florida, his 78-year-old mother will be at his side.