WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — For Bruce Cargill, an 87-year-old retiree, Medicare is a “glorious program” that, along with Social Security, keeps millions of older Americans out of poverty.
But he’s also quick to note that he forks out premiums and co-pays: “It’s government insurance. But it’s insurance.”
Mike Manning, 64, accuses President Barack Obama of “cutting Medicare” through the federal health care overhaul “then lying about it.” He also says the country is headed for fiscal ruin unless it curtails spending.
“How do you know who to trust in this?” frets Ed Galante, also a few months from Medicare eligibility. He declares the entire debate to be poisoned by craven politicians.
In Florida, where legions of retirees are so important to election outcomes, voters from seniors to young people express strong feelings about the future of Medicare. The debate is playing out in the presidential campaign as well as House and Senate races that will help determine the balance of power on Capitol Hill.
The views expressed in a series of recent interviews with voters in this key battleground state were as varied as the solutions politicians have offered for the costly entitlement program.
This is where voters found common ground: None expressed confidence that government will provide new generations the benefits now granted to older Americans. And few said they believe that either Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney have a practical answer for sustaining an insurance program that accounts for nearly a fifth of federal spending and about 4 percent of the U.S. economy.
“I just assume Medicare won’t be there for me at all,” said Christine Pallesen, a 26-year-old business consultant in Fort Lauderdale.
The responses demonstrate how vexing the issue is for Americans across age groups, particularly baby boomers. That landscape makes it particularly difficult for campaigns to know just how their Medicare strategies will play in November.
Like Florida, swing-voting states such as Iowa and Ohio also have large numbers of seniors and older boomers. Obama won all three states in 2008, and Romney has no likely path to the White House if he fails to win Florida and Ohio.
The Medicare debate intensified when Romney named Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, as his running mate. Ryan’s long-term budget blueprint would curtail government insurance in favor of vouchers to help individuals buy private plans.
Democrats say that’s proof enough that Republicans “will end Medicare as we know it.” The GOP counters that the 2010 health care law, which redirects about $700 billion in future Medicare spending, makes the president the real threat to existing beneficiaries.
Democratic strategists in Florida say Medicare is an issue that fires up the party’s liberal base while resonating with nonpartisans who believe government should establish a social safety net and reasonably regulate the marketplace.
Their Republican counterparts outline a two-pronged strategy: convince older voters that Romney is the better protector of the status quo for them. But they want younger voters to analyze Medicare within the GOP’s larger framing of Obama as a profligate who has left no choice but to overhaul benefits for future recipients.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, 41, said recently after a speech in Palm Beach County, “I believe people in my generation understand that.”
Romney demonstrates the delicate balance. He praises Ryan, 42, for forcing “serious discussion,” while emphasizing that the congressman’s budget won’t define a Romney administration. One of Ryan’s first campaign stops was at The Villages, a GOP-friendly retirement development in central Florida. He introduced his mother as a proud Medicare recipient.