As a seasoned practitioner of deceptive politics, George Bush needs no assistance from us in defending himself against Bill Clinton's latest distortions. But the old folks do. Listen to the Democratic candidate as he blasts President Bush's timorous efforts to slow the budget-breaking, deficit-spawning rise in Medicare costs:
"If you're one of the 30 million Americans who depends on Medicare, his [Mr. Bush's] budget makes you $2,000 poorer over the next five years," Governor Clinton told some elderly picnickers in Macon, Ga. this week. "Of the $294 billion in budget cuts over the next five years Mr. Bush proposes, more than $127 billion come from Medicare."
FACT: At no time has the president proposed lowering Medicare benefits to make recipients "poorer." He has proposed that benefits rise no faster than the rate of inflation. And to make the transition easier, there would be the added cushion of a 2 percent boost the first year and 1 percent the second year on top of the inflation rate.
FACT: That $127 billion is not Mr. Bush's figure. It is the creation of a Clinton campaign adviser, doubling as a professor at the University of North Carolina, who extrapolated it from a series of suggested options drawn up by the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office and included in the administration's mid-year budget review.
FACT: Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton have deliberately avoided any reconciliation between their deficit-reduction goals for Medicare or anything else and their inflated revenue projections. Just as the president has declined to say what programs he would cut to pay for the tax reductions he has promised, so his challenger has ducked any details on how he would finance his health care reforms.
With 31 million elderly in the population who vote in greater numbers than any other age cohort, it is perhaps inevitable that their fears and insecurities will be the playthings of ambitious politicians.
Take Social Security. It has become the silent issue, untouchable, which is a shame. While minimum monthly benefits now going to the elderly poor are not sufficient to raise them above the poverty level, maximum payments going to the elderly affluent make them the richest segment of the whole population. If all their benefits were taxed as regular income, the deficit could be cut by billions.
This year's noisy issue is health care and its mandatory entitlement programs: Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. Both candidates know costs are out of control. Both propose some worthy financing reforms that could become part of a historic compromise during the next four years. But the partisan imperative to "differentiate" leads to the kind of scare-mongering we just heard from Governor Clinton.
It won't stop. Counterpoint in kind will be heard from the president. If elderly Americans wish to escape exploitation, they will have to put their skepticism on red alert and beware of what comes out of the mouths of politicians.