As Barack Obama’s bus cruised through the heartland last week, the media told us a fair amount about what the president said. In Alpha, Illinois, Obama gave a less-than-clear explanation of the amount of wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax, and then let it slip that apparently he supports a change in the way cost of living benefits are calculated, most likely using the so-called chained CPI. In Cannon Falls, Minnesota, the president said that Social Security is “one of our most important social insurance programs that we have,” and argued against calling it an entitlement, since people earn their benefits through deductions from their paychecks. He repeated what he had said in the past: “Social Security is not the cause of our debt and our deficit.” In St. Louis, he told NBC affiliate KSDK that “we could have had a grand bargain that would have reduced our deficit a lot more than the deal that actually emerged.”
And so it went as the president tried to connect with voters. While he was meeting and greeting outside the Beltway, I was in Columbia, Missouri, holding one of CJR’s own periodic town halls. My takeaway from seniors at the Columbia Activity Senior Center: Pols beware! Connecting with voters might be hard no matter what you say. The people with whom I chatted said they had an uneasy feeling about both Democrat Claire McCaskill, who is up for reelection next year, and Republican congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer, who represents Columbia. They were not sure if either of them had their constituents’ interests at heart. Seventy-seven-year-old Dorothy Kyger, a volunteer in the Center’s gift shop, was almost apologetic as she described how she felt. “I feel they should represent us,” she told me. “But, no, they are not representing my ideas. I have felt this way a long time.” Still, she hoped that “people in Congress would come to their senses and think about the people they are representing.”
Kyger considers herself an independent; she was leaning more Democratic now, but wasn’t sure she would vote for McCaskill. She is unsure that McCaskill stands for what matters to her. As for Luetkemeyer, she had heard him talk recently and was not impressed. “He’s trying to read some economics books to figure out what to do,” she said. “He was essentially saying he didn’t know what to do. His feeling is nobody helped him, and he got where he got himself, meaning he didn’t get any government subsidies.”
Kyger is concerned about Medicare, but says she has not panicked about it yet. “I have been on the recipient end of Medicare and am very grateful. I hear Medicare is going broke, and I hear both positive and negative things and don’t know who to believe which is why I don’t get super hyper about it.” Although Kyger has been involved in community meetings in an effort to learn more, she admits sometimes she simply doesn’t listen to what the pols say. “I just turn off,” she says. “Finding all those dirty things about people. It’s demoralizing. It’s just nasty and too many people get hurt.”
Sixty-two-year old Mike McMillen was on his way to a bridge game at the Center when he pulled up a chair to talk. He said he was semi-retired and receiving about $1500 a month from Social Security. He believed in privatizing the system because that way his family could get his benefit. He admitted he knew “very little” about Social Security and Medicare and had some misconceptions. “They’ve taken our money and have expanded the original role for Social Security,” he said. In particular, disability benefits bothered him. I explained that both survivors’ benefits and disability benefits had long been part of the program and that Social Security protects families from loss of income in old age, from a disability, or when the breadwinner dies. This is not well understood by the public. The only thing he knew about Medicare came from taking care of his mother. “Every month I get a ton of paper. I bet they kill a forest whenever they send out that stuff.” Some doctors, he said, would not take Medicare.
McMillen was a fourth generation Democrat—a yellow dog Democrat, he said. His great uncle had been chairman of the state Democratic committee. “But for my part, I don’t vote for the Democrats,” he told me. “I feel my party as left me.” The subject turned to Claire McCaskill, whom McMillen said he had known for twenty-eight years. “She has a lot of good values, but when these people get to Washington, there’s just something that happens. If you want a good committee assignment, you have to play ball with the good old boys,” he explained. “It’s the whole political system and the money thrown around by the special interests.” Democrats have to take money from the unions and trial lawyers; Republicans are subject to the religious fanatics, he went on. “The thing that’s corrupted the system the most is the out-of-state money and out-of-district money. If you could take money only from people in your district, you would be more responsive,” McMillen believed.
What about McCaskill, I probed? Is she representing the people of the state well? McMillen was silent. Then he said: “I don’t think any of them are representing the state well. I don’t want to single out local people. When was the last time you heard the word ‘statesman’ to refer to a member of Congress? They aren’t statesmen.”
Barbara Matson, age seventy-one, greeted people at the door as they came for lunch or a game of cards. She said she was secure financially and was not worried about Social Security COLA formulas. She did have strong opinions about the medical system, which she described as “the biggest mess there is. I really think we should have a single-payer system.” She had a hard time figuring out what Medicare paid for. Like McMillen, she put her finger on the paperwork. “I have a stack of papers,” she told me. “I used to try to make sense of them, but I don’t any more.” Matson explained further. “Those pieces of paper have those codes—how am I supposed to know them. If someone charged me for something I should know what it is. Those explanations of benefits are just numbers. If they put them in English, I would know what the money was going for.”
Had she heard the political talk about cutting Medicare? “I don’t know much about that,” she said. “There is so much advertising, I can’t sort it out. The advertising is so misleading in a lot of cases. It’s such a barrage of information and misinformation. People have opinions and opinions and opinions. It’s difficult to sort it all out.” Matson, who leans Democratic, says she has tuned out. “I vote and am not a terrible citizen, and no, I don’t like Leutkemeyer,” she said.
Eighty-six year old Harmon Fanslar ,who felled trees for a living, comes to the senior center three times a week. He said he was “sort of “ a Democrat, and his political views tended to reflect traditional Democratic beliefs. He would vote for McCaskill again because “she’s a good fighter for what she believes in. What does she believe in, I ask. “She’s pretty much for ordinary people,” Fanslar replied. He had no idea of what she really believed about changing Social Security and Medicare, or what she would do when push came to shove in the end-of-the-year debate on both those programs. He did say he had heard they might cut Social Security and Medicare. “I totally got to depend on them,” he told me. Most eighty-six year-olds do.
What about Leutkemeyer? “He’s a Republican,” Fanslar said. “He’s for the rich and to heck with the voters.” Are politicians representing your interests? Fanslar didn’t take long to reply. “Democrats more so than Republicans,” he said, offering no further details.
If Fanslar was sort of a Democrat, Richard and Anne, who didn’t want their last names used, were definitely Republicans. Their comments, too, reflected traditional party beliefs. When I asked about McCaskill, Richard said “She’s a Democrat. I don’t care for her. Democrats are too liberal; they give everything away and spend beyond what’s a limit.” Both said they did not keep up with politics, but had heard about possible cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and they did not like that one bit. Said Richard, who had spent his career in government working as research scientist: “I know they want to cut into it. It’s something we’ve already paid for. It should stand on its own. If they did away with the COLA, I think we’d be coming up short.” He went on: “They robbed the fund. The Democrats took the fund and applied it to something else.” And Medicare. “We paid for it, too. We earned it.”
There you have it—a microcosm of mid-Missouri, a battleground in the next election where seniors are likely to vote, know something is afoot for Social Security and Medicare, don’t believe the pols represent them, and are tuning
out conflicting political messages. Like I keep saying, it’s always good to get out of the office and leave the New York-Washington axis to see what real people think.