Losing sight: Seniors a political miscalculation

As Congress and the Obama administration prepare for another round of divisive debt and deficit negotiations following the president’s speech, it goes without saying that Americans’ views toward an ineffective Washington are increasingly bordering on the irreversible.

A Rasmussen Reports poll out last month found that only 29 percent of likely voters approve of the president’s handling of the economy (down from 36 percent three weeks ago). Eighty-two percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job, according to a separate New York Times/CBS News poll.

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The upcoming Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is only likely to amplify these frustrations. The stagnant 9.1 percent unemployment rate, recent debt-ceiling debacle, erosion of consumer confidence and across-the-board sense that a double-dip recession is looming will fuel the type of rhetoric that clouds policymakers’ judgment heading into a contentious election season. Every poll I’ve seen points to the same conclusion: Americans want fiscally responsible, consensus-based solutions over traditional party platforms. 

Nowhere is this more applicable than among voters over the age of 65 — a new “silent majority” that favored Republicans by 21 points in 2010. America’s seniors are well aware that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid services have all been targeted for potential cuts. As a result, they are keeping a close eye on Washington — and they are counting on lawmakers not only to address today’s fiscal challenges but also to take action that will make sense over the long term as well, particularly when it comes to entitlement reform.

Although neither party has yet to do so, both have an opportunity to advance common-sense reforms that save money and strengthen the programs on which seniors depend. Whichever party takes the lead could reap extraordinary benefits come next November. 

While Medicare and Medicaid reform must be included as part of a balanced-budget plan, there needs to be renewed focus on eliminating staggering waste, fraud and abuse, especially from the party that is now seen as liberal big spenders. For example, if Democrats train their focus on eliminating the fraud and abuse that by some estimates costs Medicare and Medicaid $68 billion annually, they become the fiscally responsible party without cutting benefits or imposing higher costs on seniors. In fact, Democrats are in an ideal position to become the seniors’ protector by demanding that no benefit is cut or fee is raised until every wasted dollar is first recouped. Such a stance would cut costs, strengthen Medicare and Medicaid and deliver common-sense savings to seniors. 

Another example: Providing care in seniors’ homes saves money and has strong support. Yet many in Washington have been calling for home healthcare cuts as well as co-payments from those seniors who receive it. As a recent bipartisan poll by Stan Greenberg and Bob Ward made clear, most seniors oppose this approach. A far better approach would be to increase seniors’ access to home-based healthcare — both to enable them to remain where they most want to be (at home) and to secure substantial savings by reducing costly facility care.

These are not the only common-sense paths available to Congress and the administration, but they might be the most readily available. Facing severe political headwinds, Democrats have an opportunity to embrace such an agenda and champion alternative means to cut costs. Doing so would position them as the pro-senior, fiscally responsible party while helping to gain back the 21 percent advantage with which senior voters rewarded Republicans in 2010, compared to an even split in 2008. Converting the bitter disappointment felt around Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R) healthcare plan into action is a good start, but targeting fraud and abuse and expanding seniors’ access to home-based care would be even more effective in preserving the stability of the system and restoring confidence. 

Schoen is a Democratic pollster and strategist. He is the author of “The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, From the Grass Roots to the White House.”