Many millions of dollars are being spent in both current presidential campaigns emphasizing personal qualities over clarifying the candidates’ stands on the issues. Now seniors take their politics seriously: While the 65-and-older demographic comprises only 12 percent of the nation’s population, in the last presidential election 73 percent of seniors reported that they voted—the largest percentage of any age group, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey.
But neither candidate on the campaign trail has spoken often on issues that matter to seniors, and when they have, it’s been underreported by much of the media. So at the end of the day, how different are the candidates—and their respective political parties—from each other when it comes to issues of great importance to seniors, such as long-term care, Social Security, medical insurance and taxes?
Simply put, “the real fault lines between the two candidates’ positions are over how to treat people in the highest tax brackets. It gets to the heart of their economic philosophies,” said Leonard E. Burman, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan Washington-based tax reform group.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), specifically through his campaign Web site and implicitly through the official platform of the Democratic Party, would shore up the needs of seniors at the lower end of the economic spectrum. He has proposed to eliminate income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000 a year.
“This will provide an immediate tax cut averaging $1,400 to 7 million seniors and relieve millions from the burden of filing tax returns,” the official Obama literature asserts.
Additionally, Obama would rescind the Bush administration’s income tax cut (that Democrats claim has benefited only the nation’s wealthiest citizens) and apply the windfall to his social programs, together with revenues from a slight tax rate increase for those earning more than $250,000. The increase would secure Social Security—without cuts and raising the retirement age—and finance his ambitious national health care proposal.
Although seniors already enjoy universal health care through Medicare, Obama argues that the program requires some tweaking because “catastrophic expenses” were “routine” and that, as currently applied, Medicare benefits do not cover expenses for most long-term care. His goal, he told the AARP, was to ensure that the program “protect seniors and families from impoverishment and debt.”
Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) and Obama’s positions are similar regarding the estate tax—sometimes referred to by the Bush administration as the “death tax.” Both candidates would retain a reduced version of the estate tax, although McCain would reduce it more than Obama, according to Factcheck.org and Snopes.com.
The Democratic candidate has proposed to apply the tax only to estates valued at more than $3.5 million ($7 million for couples), holding the maximum rate at 45 percent. McCain would apply it to estates worth more than $5 million ($10 million for couples), with a maximum rate of 15 percent.
Unlike Obama, McCain would renew the Bush income tax cut when it expires, which the Republicans believe will give citizens more cash to choose their own health care coverage options, should they use their rebate to pay for it.
The McCain attitude shaping policy—and that of the Republican Party, generally—is that seniors can manage their own lives without the intervention of government and that they should be free to choose their own way to solve many of these concerns. The Republican Party would not offer income-tax relief to seniors with incomes less than $50,000. The GOP believes that seniors already get federal help through Social Security and Medicare and often have economic advantages over other demographic groups.
It should be noted that McCain is a major proponent of privatizing Social Security, a program he termed “disgraceful” this summer, touching off protests by seniors at his campaign appearances in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
For seniors requiring expensive long-term care, McCain would privatize services and leave choices to individuals. He is a proponent of recent state-based experiments such as Cash and Counseling or the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, through which seniors are granted a monthly stipend from which they can choose to pay home-care workers and purchase care-related services and goods.
McCain told AARP that eldercare matters should be decided within families and that “any way we can help caregivers” offset costs through tax credits or other financial incentives should be considered as “part of an overall policy regarding health care.”
How the senior vote will affect the presidential race in November is still a matter of debate. In 2004, voters ages 65 and older went Republican for the first time in years, backing President Bush more heavily than the rest of the electorate. Many of today’s seniors were influenced by Reagan conservatism, according to analysts in both parties, and they’re better off financially than the Roosevelt-era seniors, a fact that may favor the current Republican candidate.
Both campaigns are comin’ a courtin’ the senior vote. Obama has appointed a national seniors constituency director and the McCain campaign has launched an effort to encourage seniors to talk to their peers. States with the largest proportion of seniors based on total population—Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa—are considered “swing states,” meaning that pensioners could very well influence the outcome of the national election.
How well informed senior voters will be is perhaps the most important issue of all.
Stanley Mieses is a writer, editor and broadcast commentator based in New York.
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