THE VILLAGES, Florida — The screened-in pools, golf carts, and manmade lagoons of the Villages, a sprawling planned community of almost 90,000 people, are all testaments to just how well middle-class Americans who came of age in the mid-20th century can live on their fixed incomes.
Interviews with residents of the Villages who had come to one of the community’s picturesque town squares to shop or eat showed the importance they attach to both Social Security and Medicare — but also the problem Democrats face in drawing distinctions on the issue.
President Obama and his party are hoping to contrast their longstanding support for Social Security and Medicare with Republican plans to turn Medicare into a voucher program, which would reduce benefits for future seniors. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, has made such a plan the centerpiece of the GOP’s fiscal agenda, and presidential nominee Mitt Romney has put forward a similar proposal.
But there's bad news under the palms for Obama: most retirees interviewed here think he already has tampered with Medicare, pointing to his reduction of more than $700 billion in future reimbursements for medical care for seniors, as part of his health-care overhaul. Democrats insist that that provision won’t affect benefits for the elderly, but rather simply reduces the rate of increase in the amount paid to their health-care providers. But that's not how some residents of the Villages see it.
"The $716 billion that Obama cut has to come from somewhere," declared John Niles, a transplanted Minnesotan who has lived in the Villages since 2006. "They cut reimbursements, so my payments are going up."
Democrats insist that won't happen, but many seniors here are skeptical. And while Ryan's budget proposal, passed by the Republican-led House, included the same cuts in reimbursements, the Republican ticket seems to have sufficiently drummed home the idea that Mitt Romney and Ryan will be restoring the money. Indeed, Ryan and his elderly mother came to the Villages shortly before the GOP convention to drive home exactly that point. Further, Ryan's insistence that Obama didn't merely cut Medicare, but rather took the money to give to lower-income people through Obamacare, also seems to resonate.
"We avoid political discussions," bemoaned Jackie Kuhlman, who moved last year to the Villages from Wisconsin, and admits to being one of the few Obama supporters in her community. "Our next-door neighbors are Romney fans and I feel like we could have a discussion with them. But what we're most concerned about it might get heated, and it wouldn't be a discussion, it would be an argument."
Most people in her village, Kuhlman said, seemed predisposed against Obama, a feeling she thinks may be related to concerns about his race and foreign-seeming background. "I think that's part of it," she said, as her husband interjected, "I'd like to think it's not part of it. But it may be his name. If his name were George Washington he wouldn't be having this problem."
David and Dolores Cramer, who moved to the Villages three years ago from Illinois, said they hadn’t followed the details of the Medicare debate, but that as Republicans, trusted Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan more than they did Obama and the Democrats on the issue.
The couple said they weren’t concerned about themselves because their ages meant the changes in Medicare wouldn’t affect them; The Romney-Ryan plan would exempt current beneficiaries, as well as those who are 55 or older, from the changes. The provision holding people their age harmless made the possibility of future Medicare cuts an abstract concern.
“Of course I don’t want it to affect our children, but we probably won’t be around to see what happens,” Dolores said.
Other seniors voiced similar sentiments.
"We're set," said Bea Wilhelm, referring to the 55-plus cutoff.
Actually, repealing Obamacare would reopen the so-called donut hole in the Medicare prescription drug benefit, forcing current seniors to pay more for their drugs, but few seemed aware of that.
Although David Cramer is on a number of medications as a result of a stroke, he and his wife did not seem worried on that front, saying they would get by one way or the other.
Rich Behling, 65, a retired aerospace worker, said he thought reducing entitlements for the next generation of retirees was inevitable.
“They have to do something,” he said. “They have to fix the problem.”
When an interviewer noted that one big reason for our long-term fiscal problems was the Bush-era tax cuts and asked if some of those should be allowed to lapse, Behling said he thought more tax cuts were needed.
“We have to reduce corporate taxes and some business taxes,” he said.
Sitting at the same table, Tom Mowers, a Republican and a professed cynic about both parties, said he doubted much of anything would happen to reduce government spending on entitlements.
“I’m still waiting for Ronald Reagan to do anything his platform called for,” he said.