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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

MSM Lightweights Give GOP Field Free Ride on Key FL Issues

Turns out two major issues in the Florida GOP presidential primary, Social Security and Medicare, are getting scant coverage by both candidates and the media. As Tracy Jan observes in her Boston Globe article “Fla. seniors hear little from candidates on entitlements“:

When talk turned to Medicare and Social Security in the days leading up to tomorrow’s Florida Republican primary, this critical voting bloc voiced disappointment that the issues disproportionately affecting seniors have been notably absent from debates and candidates’ stump speeches here. Most older voters say they don’t know what distinguishes the GOP contenders from each other when it comes to the future of the two programs.
“I think the candidates want to stay away from it, keep it quiet until after the primaries,” said Ralph Lawson, a 71-year-old retired financial planner from Dracut, Mass., in between dancing to live jazz. “They don’t want to upset seniors, the majority of the voters here.”

The issue is a political minefield, with disagreements even among the more conservative seniors. As Jan notes:

Elders who are supporters of the Tea Party divide sharply on proposals for reducing Medicare and Social Security, said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard government professor who coauthored a book about the movement…The well-funded national Tea Party organizations pushing for lower taxes strongly support Medicare privatization, yet grass-roots supporters worry about losing benefits they feel they have earned by working hard their entire lives, said Skocpol.

While Romney has supported raising the eligibility age for Medicare qualification and favors a privatization option for the program. Gingrich, who has blasted Rep. Paul Ryan’s privatization plans as “right-wing social engineering,” has tread a little more carefully:

While Gingrich was lambasted by some in the Tea Party movement for his critique of the original Ryan plan, Skocpol said, the former House speaker’s sentiments did not hurt him with the grass-roots movement. And his move during last Monday’s debate in Tampa to show his support for the Medicare prescription drug benefit – despite its expense and amid Romney’s accusations he was guilty of influence peddling in promoting the proposal in 2003 – may have won him even more favor with Florida seniors, she said.

While Jan notes the lack of substantive discussion about Medicare and Social Security in the Florida GOP primary, Richard Eskow, a senior fellow at The Campaign for America’s Future, doesn’t shy from assigning blame. As Eskow notes in his HuffPo post, “Do GOP Candidates and the Press Have a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” Not to Discuss Social Security in Florida? “:

You’d think Social Security would top the list of subjects for a Presidential debate in Florida. How many questions did Wolf Blitzer ask about it during Thursday night’s Republican debate in Jacksonville?
Answer: None. The words “Social Security” never passed his lips.
It was almost as if there were a “gentlemen’s agreement” among the five people on the stage. And we use that phrase advisedly, since Blitzer sealed the boy’s club atmosphere by asking each of the candidates why his wife would make the best First Lady.
The candidates did mention Social Security a couple of times, but only in passing and only in the most misleading ways possible. It’s too bad there wasn’t, oh, a journalist nearby – one who was inclined to ask follow-up questions.

Ouch. Harsh, but not undeserved.
Eskow explains that Santorum and Paul “attacked Newt Gingrich from the right on Social Security” in the last debate, and then “Gingrich attacked Obama from the left…” However, notes Eskow:

What Gingrich doesn’t say is that he wants to privatize Social Security with a plan that would ultimately cut benefits and put what’s left at risk for the next financial crisis, while making trillions of dollars for Wall Street. He also keeps pushing the widely disproved notions that it’s a “Ponzi scheme” and “a fraud.” (The best takedown of those ideas was done in 1958 by a bipartisan panel convened by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.)

As for the media blackout of the issue:

So why wasn’t it a topic that Blitzer and CNN considered important enough to discuss? When Santorum first mentioned Social Security, Blitzer said “We’re going to get to that in a moment.” Iit sounded like the “it” in question was Social Security, but Blitzer never mentioned it again.

Eskow has a plausible explanation why the candidates dodge the issue:

I can certainly understand why the candidates didn’t want the subject raised. More than three and a half million Republican voters rely on Social Security, including seniors, disabled people, and surviving spouses. In fact, the candidates in Tuesday’s primary would be crazy not to hide their opinions on the topic:
Mitt Romney’s been pushing to privatize Social Security for years. After the financial crisis of 2008, Americans understand how risky it would be to place their financial security in the hands of greedy, reckless, and irresponsible financiers – or as Mitt probably thinks of them, “the fellas.”…Ron Paul says Social Security is “unconstitutional.”
With proposals like these, who wouldn’t want to keep the Sunshine State in the dark? An AARP survey showed that likely Republican voters in Florida oppose Social Security cuts by more than two to one. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, a slight majority would favor raising the retirement age, but more Republicans favor the solution that’s typically called “progressive” – lifting or raising the cap on payroll taxes so that higher income levels are subject to the tax. All four Republican candidates strongly oppose this idea, which is their voters’ preferred option.

Jan and Eskow are not alone in commenting on the free ride in big media being enjoyed by the GOP field and Eskow concludes with this blistering observation:

Some voters noticed the omission. As USA Today reported on the morning before the debate, “people are frustrated that the Republican presidential candidates have largely avoided the issues of Medicare and Social Security.” You’d think that would have made the subject even more important for CNN to raise. A news organization’s job is to ask candidates the questions they don’t want asked. Surely they could have squeezed one in, perhaps after asking the First Lady question? (Gingrich graciously said they’d all be wonderful at the job.)
Remember the movie “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead”? This week’s Florida primary should be renamed “Don’t Tell Grandma Social Security Will Be Dead – and Medicare Too – If We’re Elected.” Mitt Romney’s already on record as saying income inequality shouldn’t be discussed openly. Was there some sort of “gentleman’s agreement” to ignore Social Security too?

The kindest interpretation is that Blitzer was somehow distracted from asking the hardball questions on Social Security and Medicare, which is the news anchor’s equivalent of whiffing in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs in an important play-off game. But his softball question about the role of the candidates’ wives as first ladies suggests a lightweight posture toward the debates at best.
No doubt other journalists have contributed to the problem with weak coverage of the candidates positions on Medicare and Social Security. In any case, the Florida presidential primary is way too important for any major media to function as lapdogs, whether by oversight or design. Voters have a right to expect better.

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