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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

'Bumper sticker slogans' dominate GOP discussion of Social Security and Medicare, panel says



The Republican candidates for president are skirting the difficult issues surrounding Medicare and Social Security, four experts said in a panel discussion Monday ahead of the GOP presidential debate at the University of South Florida.

Addressing a group of journalists, the panel included Bill Adair, editor of, a fact-checking service of the Tampa Bay Times; David John, with the conservative Heritage Foundation; David Certner with AARP; and Richard Johnson, with the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank that does economic and social policy research. The discussion was sponsored by AARP and The Poynter Institute, the nonprofit school for journalists that owns the Times.

The panelists’ consensus: The candidates are getting away with “bumper sticker slogans” instead of presenting cogent ideas about how to ensure the future of the two massive federal entitlement programs.

Social Security, which workers pay into through payroll taxes that come back to them in the form of monthly checks in retirement, is solvent through 2036, Certner said, although its future beyond then is less certain. Medicare, funded similarly, is in far more dire straits because of the high costs of health care and the large wave of baby boomers retiring.

Part of the challenge in the debate, Certner said, is that average Americans care a great deal about the programs but know relatively little about how they work or what their individual benefits will amount to. And when candidates express any depth of knowledge or longterm ideas, they’re belittled.

“It’s kind of hard to get elected if you’re the ‘Scrooge’ who’s going to cut benefits,” Johnson said. “We like to elect optimistic candidates.”

That leaves it up to journalists covering the campaign to demand specific answers and ask follow-up questions once the talking points are dispatched with, John said.

“Simple politics” explains the candidates’ reluctance to be pinned down about increasing Medicare taxes or cutting benefits.

“The candidates don’t want to do anything that would hurt their support among older voters,” said Adair.

The best weapon: “You just keep following up,” he said.

If a candidate says his solution is to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care reform, then the next question should be what it will be replaced with.

Molly Moorhead, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 3:17pm]


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