While President Obama is assured of re-nomination as his party’s candidate for president, on the Republican side things are far from decided, as a half a dozen serious candidates will be competing for votes over the next several months in primaries, straw polls, and caucuses held all across the nation.
It is a well-known fact that Americans past the age of 50 have higher voting rates than other groups, and now that the Baby Boomer generation has by and large moved into this age category, the over 50 set has more power and influence than ever before. Consequently, any candidate hoping to be elected to the highest office in the land will inevitably spend a great deal of time elucidating and explaining their views on the issues that are most important to older voters.
What follows here is a summary of where the top six Republican candidates for president stand on the issues that most directly affect seniors and those approaching retirement age. This information is based on the public statements the candidates have made, and in some instances on policy papers they have published in various media outlets.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, has called for significant reforms to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, lumping them together with other New Deal and Great Society programs she has referred to collectively as “a multi-trillion dollar experiment and failure.” She supports raising the retirement age, while finding a way to replace the government’s responsibility for Social Security payments to those who will enter the program in the future through at least partial privatization. As a member of the House of Representatives, Bachmann voted for the budget plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, which would have converted Medicaid into a capped block-grant program to be administered by the states (the size of the grant for each state would be determined by population). This plan would have also changed Medicare into a government voucher system, where future retirees would have been required to purchase private insurance (at a government-funded discount) as an alternative to enrollment in the old Medicare program.
The former Speaker of the House of Representatives supports privatization schemes for Social Security and Medicare, but he opposed the aforementioned plan from Rep. Ryan because it would have forced seniors to find a private insurance plan as a replacement for government coverage. Speaker Gingrich does indeed want to give seniors a government-backed private insurance plan option as an alternative to Medicare, however, his plan, as detailed on his website, would allow retirees to stay in the government system if they so choose. Gingrich would also give younger workers the option of diverting their Social Security taxes to a private account for future usage, but again they could also elect to stay in the government system if they would prefer. Despite a general opposition to increased government involvement in health care, Gingrich supported the Medicare Part D drug plan for expanded prescription medication coverage. In addition, he would make it illegal for insurance companies to increase rates or cut off coverage simply because policyholders become ill.
Despite a reputation as the most moderate of the Republican presidential candidates, Huntsman supported the Ryan Plan for Medicare, based on his concerns about the cost of the current program. He has also spoken favorably of turning Medicaid into a block-grant system, which would set a limit on government expenditures for a program that was set up to help low-income individuals of all ages. Huntsman has expressed the opinion that states should be given more freedom to experiment with alternatives to Medicare and Medicaid – as an example of what he has in mind, as governor of Utah he led a successful effort to collect private donations to assist Medicaid patients unable to get dental coverage from the federal government. While not providing a detailed plan for the restructuring of the Social Security system, Huntsman has said that if elected president he would consider raising the minimum retirement age and decreasing benefits for relatively well-to-do seniors as a way to save money.
A true libertarian, Texas Congressman Ron Paul would like to see government programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid eliminated completely. However, he has recommended that Social Security be phased out over time, so that seniors currently dependent on the system would not face hardship from a sudden loss of benefits. Also, he has opposed the taxation of social security benefits, and has offered legislation that would put Social Security funds in a safe, protected place where they could never be used for other purposes. Paul believes that young workers should be given the right to opt out of the social security payroll tax, and out of the Social Security if they desire to do so, effective immediately. Not surprisingly, Rep. Paul opposed the new Medicare D drug plan, but he pragmatically supported negotiated pricing for drugs once Part D was approved. While Congressman Paul has ameliorated his opposition to social welfare programs somewhat for practical reasons, he has in the past referred to Social Security and Medicare as “unconstitutional,” making it clear that his opposition to the existence of these programs runs deep and is based on unchangeable principle.
The governor of Texas in the past has referred to the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid mega-system as a “Ponzi scheme” that is unsustainable and must be completely overhauled. Perry claims that he would not get rid of Social Security, but he strongly favors all attempts to privatize the system by allowing workers to form their own retirement accounts in lieu of paying social security taxes. In addition, he has spoken in favor or raising the retirement age and limiting payouts to wealthy seniors. With respect to Medicare and Medicaid, Perry has called for more flexibility and experimentation at the state level, and just as with Social Security he has talked of raising the eligibility age for Medicare while limiting benefits for richer retirees. He also favors giving seniors the option of dropping out of Medicare and replacing it with private insurance purchased with the help of a government voucher.
Governor Romney has called for a gradual increase of the retirement age and a reduction in benefits for seniors with significant personal assets, which he sees as the beginning steps in a long-term plan to make the Social Security system solvent again. On Medicare, the former governor of Massachusetts wants the government to make a contribution to help retirees purchase either private insurance or government coverage, with the amount of the government’s contribution to be determined by income (poorer retirees would get more assistance). He has also spoken enthusiastically of the Medicaid block-grant proposal, which would give hegemony to individual states while capping overall Medicaid benefits at a specific dollar level. Like every other Republican candidate, Romney has called for the repeal of the new health care bill signed by President Obama, even though he signed a health care bill of his own into law during his time as governor.