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Jewish World Review June 16, 2000 /13 Sivan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

Doting on the grandparents -- USING SCARE TACTICS and policy goodies, Vice President Al Gore is trying hard to attract seniors into the Democratic camp this year, but the evidence is that it's a tough group to capture.

Seniors have been trending toward Republican in recent elections. Polls on their current preferences are mixed. On the policy level, Gore's attacks on Texas Gov. George W. Bush's Social Security plan haven't worked. The jury is out on Democratic offers of new Medicare drug benefits. But Gore's proposal to use the budget surplus to pay down debt -- not cut taxes -- does look promising to this group of voters.

In the May 31 Zogby/Reuters poll, Gore led Bush by 44 to 40 percent among voters over 65 years old. But among voters aged 55 to 69, Bush led by 49 to 37 percent. In a May 23 Gallup poll, Bush led older-than-50 voters by 50 to 38 percent. And in a late-May Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, Bush led by 54 to 32 percent among voters aged 60 to 70.

Historically, seniors have been a stalwart Democratic voting group in congressional elections, but they have increasingly moved to the GOP -- and in presidential elections, too. In 1992, Bill Clinton beat Bush's father by 50 to 38 percent among voters over 60, and that group supported Democrats for Congress by 53 to 47 percent, according to exit polls.

But in 1996, seniors supported Clinton by just 48 to 44 percent and voted marginally Republican for Congress, 51 to 49 percent. In 1998, they supported Republican congressional candidates by a margin of 55 to 45 percent.

In the years prior to 1992, seniors supported Republican Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and split almost evenly in 1988.

It's clear from the polls that Gore desperately needs seniors if he has any hope of beating Bush. Gore leads among 18- to 24-year-olds, according to Zogby, but every other group up to age 65 supports Bush.

Bush is appealing to younger voters with a Social Security plan designed to let them invest part of their retirement funds in the stock market -- an idea that Gore denounces as risky and irresponsible.

The Zogby poll indicates it's popular, though. It's favored by 65 percent of voters across the age spectrum and opposed by only 27 percent. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, it scores 77 to 20 percent, and even among those over 65, it's favored by 54 to 35 percent.

Lately, Gore has dropped his previous strategy of attacking Bush and has launched a positive, proposal-rich campaign starting with appeals directed at seniors. Clinton has chimed in with a ruling that Medicare should cover the cost of drugs in clinical trials.

Gore's first TV ad campaign touts his support for a prescription drug benefit for all seniors -- which House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) said last week was also the top policy item in the party's campaign to reclaim control of Congress.

Bush and congressional Republicans back a less-ambitious plan to provide a drug benefit only to lower-income seniors. There are no public polls comparing support for the two plans, although voters generally favor Democrats to protect Medicare.

To take advantage of that, Gore seeks to one-up Republicans in what might be termed the "lockbox wars." The GOP invented the idea of reserving all Social Security tax revenues for the retirement program. Now Gore is proposing the same idea for Medicare.

The proposal seems to have taken Republicans by surprise. The best critique they could muster initially was to charge that Gore was taking credit for the Social Security lockbox, and that Republicans had proposed the Medicare lockbox first and were opposed by Democrats.

Gore's Medicare idea is the first shot in what may be his most effective policy thrust of all -- the assertion that current surpluses, the fruits of Clinton-era prosperity, should be used to secure future prosperity, not be "spent" on tax cuts.

The fiscal reality is that lockboxes for Social Security and Medicare do not affect current benefits for either program or extend their solvency. But when surpluses are not spent for tax cuts, the money can be used to pay down the national debt, which lowers interest rates and helps the economy.

Bush charges that Gore would "spend" just as much of the surplus on new government programs -- education, health care, prescription drugs -- as Bush would for tax cuts. A Bush campaign estimate of Gore's spending proposals totals $1.6 trillion over 10 years. Bush's tax cuts total $1.3 trillion.

So far, polling indicates a strong voter preference for the Gore approach. Given a choice between cutting taxes and using surpluses to "shore up Social Security and Medicare," Zogby shows that the public favors the latter choice by 48 to 43 percent. Seniors prefer it by 51 to 41 percent.

The Bush campaign insists that the argument over tax cutting vs. spending isn't over. Indeed, that's right.

And Gore thinks he can win it.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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02/08/00: Bush must retool his entire campaign
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09/02/99: U.S. future up for grabs in 2000
08/31/99: U.S. Capitol needs visitor's center -- soon
08/24/99: Will 2000 be the year of the foreign crisis?
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