Focus moves to divisive issues of health and pensions
The cost of social services has become the cockpit of the presidential contest
MUCH OF last night’s debate between vice-president Joe Biden and the Republican vice- presidential nominee Paul Ryan was expected to centre on the most intractable issues in US politics: the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare; Medicare insurance for the elderly; the Social Security pension system; and Medicaid for the poor and disabled.
The late speaker of the house Tip O’Neill first called social security the “third rail”, because politicians who touched it were electrocuted. But the term could be applied to all the “entitlements” that eat up such a large chunk of the federal budget.
AARP is a non-partisan lobby group for Americans age 50 and older, with more than 37 million members. It sponsored a festival yesterday at Centre College, where last night’s debate took place, to draw attention to anxiety about retirement security. In a survey conducted by AARP in August, 50 per cent of voters said they thought they would never be able to retire; 65 per cent said they feared they would not have a comfortable retirement, and 72 per cent of those 50 and older expected they’d be forced to delay retirement.
“Both parties recognise that changes must be made for these programmes to be viable in the future,” said AARP senior vice-president John Hishta. “But, in reality, they have not got into specific proposals about how they would reform them. There’s an enormous sense of cynicism among voters.”
Deceptive language is part of the problem. The National Republican Congressional Committee warned candidates not to use the words “entitlement reform” or “privatisation”. Shrinking social spending is a major Republican goal, but politicians have been told to describe it with words such as “strengthen”, “secure”, “save”, “preserve” and “protect”.
Paul Ryan has avoiding speaking of his entitlement- cutting fervour since he became Romney’s running mate. But Democrats remember Ryan wanted to privatise social security back in 2005. His budget plan originally advocated retirement at age 70 and Medicare insurance from age 69; Ryan subsequently lowered that to age 67.
Romney made Ryan’s plans even more vague, saying the retirement age should rise by one month each year and later be linked to life expectancy. Both Obama and Ryan would have cut $716 billion (€554 billion) from Medicare over a decade. In a move typical of the way Romney shifts policies to pander to public opinion, the Republican candidate now says he would not make those cuts to Medicare after all.
Romney long promised the total repeal of Obamacare, but recently modified that to say he would retain the law’s positive elements, for example allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26.
Much of the law will not take effect until 2014. At present, some 50 million people – 17 per cent of the US population – have no healthcare coverage. The US spends twice as much per insured person as Canada, and three times as much as Britain, said Michael Karpf, executive vice-president for health affairs at the University of Kentucky.
“We must decrease costs and increase coverage,” he said.