Three years ago last month, more than 100 older voters in Chicago surrounded Rep. Dan Rostenkowski's car and briefly blocked his exit as he left a meeting with community leaders. They were angry because he supported changes in Medicare's catastrophic health care coverage. One woman threw herself on the hood. Others jeered, "We won't forget at election time!"
This kind of visible, highly vocal opposition eventually helped lead to the bill's repeal. Scenes like this also remind legislators of the power older Americans can wield in the voting booth.
Now generational politics threatens to become an issue again. Speaking to retirees in Florida last week, Bill Clinton warned that George Bush's economic policies would force the president "to cut - even to gut - Medicare and Social Security." Although President Bush has stated that he will not cut Social Security, he has proposed a cap on entitlement programs without saying exactly where the cuts might be made.
The future of these programs is understandably a sensitive issue, affecting not only today's retirees but tomorrow's as well. Social Security and Medicare now account for nearly 30 percent of the federal budget.
Yet playing on the economic fears of older voters only exacerbates the problem. Few issues are more complicated than trying to do justice to entitlement programs, and legislators and constituents need to look at them objectively.
Consider the complications involved in questions such as means testing - linking benefits to recipients' income level. Then there are issues such as annual cost-of-living adjustments, taxes on benefits, and earnings limitations.
Recipients currently lose $1 in Social Security benefits for every $3 they earn over $10,200 a year. As for Medicare, any talk about capping benefits needs to be accompanied by discussions about controlling health-care costs.
The more complicated the issue, the less it should be reduced to hot-button campaign slogans and sound bites designed to alarm a particular segment of voters who might threaten that they "won't forget at election time."