Part of the Political Issues and Policies Special Report
What issues are important to you this political season? Income insecurity? Alzheimer’s disease? Paying for long-term care or prescription drugs? You name it, if it’s related to aging, the chances are it’s been given short shrift so far both by the presidential candidates and the political media — despite the fact that of the three remaining candidates, one is 68, one is 69 and the third is 74. And the fact that the U.S. population is rapidly aging.
“I’m absolutely outraged that these issues have not been meaningfully covered,” said Ken Dychtwald, CEO of Age Wave (a research and consulting firm specializing in aging and boomers), in a recent web briefing in which he outlined the aging issues he thought candidates should be addressing. “I’ve watched every minute of every debate and I feel I must be on another planet.”
Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer for AARP, says she and her AARP colleagues agree. “It actually has surprised us a lot how little attention [aging issues] have gotten, especially Social Security and Medicare, given the importance of 50-plus voters in the primary — 13.7 million voted for Republicans and 10 million for Democrats,” she says.
As Next Avenue blogger Chris Farrell just wrote, the candidates have been pretty vague about their proposals regarding health costs for retirees.
Intent on ‘Trivia’
Dychtwald, who has picked ending Alzheimer’s as his No. 1 federal “moonshot” issue, says that given the profound demographic shift underway, candidates and reporters are missing some of the nation’s most pressing concerns, focusing instead on trivia or on issues that affect far fewer people.
If Trump had said something about seniors that was outrageous, it would have gotten more attention.
— Jerry Austin, Democratic political consultant
He particularly blames the news media for not taking the lead. “I don’t see the drumbeat coming from the public,” Dychtwald says.
Others say only a loud drumbeat from the public will move aging issues to the fore. To that end, AARP has launched a “Take a Stand” campaign to press candidates on their Social Security proposals. Many AARP members turned out for the caucuses, town hall meetings and house gatherings to ask candidates about their plans for Social Security.
“Frankly we had the candidates talking about it, but it got very little reporting in the press,” says LeaMond.
Finally, at a CNN Republicans debate in March, CNN political correspondent Dana Bash asked a Social Security question, after more than 200,000 AARP members petitioned the network and Fox News to do so, according to LeaMond.
Not only is there relative silence on issues related to the negative aspects of aging (Alzheimer’s, long-term care and the like), candidates have not addressed what older adults can give to society, Marc Freedman wrote in the Wall Street Journal. The candidates “have largely missed an opportunity to use their own age to argue for the power of experience and the potential contribution of their many peers — citizens who have much to offer at a time that was once associated with being put out to pasture,” he wrote. Freedman is the CEO and founder of Encore.org, a nonprofit that promotes encore careers for the second half of life.
Breaking Through the Sound Bites
So is it the fault of the media that so little attention is focused on significant issues? “The press has a huge amount of responsibility and we’re acting as a representative of the public, so if we’re not going to do it, who is?” asks Charlie Green, retired editor of National Journal and former White House correspondent for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain.
That said, Green continues, “part of the frustration of the media, though, is that on a number of occasions at these debates they’ve pointed out policy inconsistencies by the candidates or outright falsehoods or areas that they haven’t addressed and it really hasn’t seemed to matter very much. So I think the public bears some responsibility, too. If the public is serious about having issues addressed in depth, they need to make that known to the candidates.”
Even if beat reporters want to conduct in-depth candidate interviews, they are at the mercy of campaign operatives, adds Green.
“The candidate has to feel it’s in his or her own interest to sit down and talk to an energy, or an aging, reporter,” he says. “Sometimes they’re reticent because they worry that the reporter may know more about that subject than they do, so it would require a significant amount of time for them to bone up on the issue.”
Social Security Mostly Ignored
As AARP has seen, even an issue as popular across the political spectrum as Social Security gets little attention.
A January poll by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that preserving Social Security benefits was a top economic concern for Americans, with 85 percent saying that protecting the program’s future is extremely or very important for the next president, including 83 percent of Republicans. And a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found this support carried across all ages.
But this perennial issue is not considered sexy or new. Protection of Social Security is a throwaway line for presidential candidates, although there is real disagreement about how to do so.
Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics, says such issues need a fresh twist in order to become news. “Immigration is an old issue,” she says. “Why did it get on the front pages? Because Donald Trump said something new about it.”
“Anybody knows Social Security is in for a real problem in the next decade or two and that’s more pressing than what Donald Trump said about immigrants committing rape. But the media knows it’s more sensational to discuss the latest sharp sound bite by this candidate or the other,” says Mark Weaver, a Republican political consultant in Ohio.
“If Trump had said something about seniors that was outrageous, it would have gotten more attention,” agrees Jerry Austin, a longtime Democratic political consultant, also based in Ohio. Rather than focus on Social Security, Austin suggests aging advocates focus on an issue that hasn’t gotten as much attention, such as how to pay for long-term care.
Other Obstacles to Coverage of Aging
In addition to new angles, the media wants visually powerful stories. Immigrants climbing over a fence or terrorist violence is seen as more compelling than, say, older people who are unable to save for retirement or who can’t pay for prescription drugs. Also working against those who want attention paid to aging issues, adds Simendinger: young members of the 2016 campaign press corps. They’re typically the ones assigned to cover candidates.
Simendinger pushes back against the notion, though, that the media in general isn’t covering the concerns of older people. “We have very reputable news outlets that continue to cover these issues in depth and with great seriousness,” she says. “Voters have a wealth of sources, but they have to work at it.”
Relying on cable television and Facebook won’t get you there, she says.
Simendinger adds that it’s important for journalists to hear from voters, in formats such as town hall meetings. She and other reporters covering the presidential election have appreciated the concerns raised by people based on their real-life experiences. “Some of those questions have been thought-provoking and candidates have gotten a lot out of it. And they revel in the chance to take questions from a ‘real’ person, rather than gotcha questions from journalists,” she says.
She and others expect aging issues to get more attention in the general election, as voters focus on which candidate will better address entitlements and health care — issues that especially affect older voters. After the party conventions this summer, the attention will shift, she says.
Mobilizing the Troops
“There is strength in numbers,” says Austin. “This populace dominates elections; 60 to 65 percent in most big states who vote are over 50, and [most of them] are over 65. They have to make their voices heard.”
Adds Weaver: “The issues that politicians address most quickly are the ones that will get them the most votes. Politicians react to their constituents, and they can move very quickly when they want to. I have clients who try to get politicians to do things. The more individual supporters they can get to contact their lawmakers, the faster those lawmakers will act. In a typical congressional office, two phone calls about a topic is nothing to worry about, ten in a day is something to think about, and with a hundred calls, the Congressman personally intervenes to see what the problem is.”
Washington consultant Steve Snider, who formerly worked in the Senate and in the Bill Clinton administration, says advocates on aging need to get out of Washington. “Nothing is happening in D.C.,” he says. “It’s just a no-action zone. Getting into the states, politically speaking, is the only way to really make a difference.”
And forget the news media, he says.
“They’re useless in advocacy. Going after political leaders, to persuade them at the local level, is the way to go,” he says, and in doing so, “target your friends and not your enemies. If you’re for lower drug prices or fixes to Social Security, go after people who are your allies and embolden them and move them more toward your position. Stop trying to convince people that don’t agree with you. Those days are over.”