Rocking-chair politics could be the silent swing factor in this year's national elections. There are between 26 million and 28 million Americans over 65 today (some 12 percent of the total US population), and they are conscientious citizens who vote at consistently higher rates than the rest of the electorate: 70 percent of the elderly turn out to vote, compared with the national average of 52.6 percent. In the past, that vote has been routinely viewed by politicians as too splintered to worry about as a special-interest or bloc vote. The elderly vote, which cuts across class, race, economic, religious, and ethnic lines, has always been viewed as reflecting that diversity.
But politicians who view the elderly as a sedentary, uncohesive group may be surprised when seniors bolt from their rocking-chair image to the polls in this presidential election year. This year they are faced with serious questions about national policies to which people on fixed incomes are most vulnerable: the future of social security, medicare, food stamps, public housing, inflation, the deficit and interest rates.
The largest organization representing the elderly in the US indicates that one issue may polarize older voters in an unprecedented way. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) represents nearly 17 million senior voters , a high percentage of whom this year are concerned about one issue: the deficit. AARP president Vita Ostrander says a survey of its leadership and members across the country ''indicates the overriding concern of the membership is to reduce the deficit. Unless we cut down the deficit, the elderly as a group will have to be vulnerable and at risk of greater reductions of benefits.''
Among these benefits, she says, the reality is that two things are of utmost concern to the elderly - medicare costs and health care. ''It brings the membership together. ... This crosses party lines, issue levels, and income levels,'' she declares.
Mrs. Ostrander points out that AARP is a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse candidates or grade them on issues of concern to the elderly. But it does keep its membership informed.
''If either party does a public policy statement on the issues of the deficit and how to deal with health care, and if the elderly get a clear message, they will definitely vote more as a group,'' she says, adding a warning: ''So far, both parties are taking the elderly vote for granted, which I think is a mistake. If they want to pursue the elderly vote, it behooves both parties to clarify their positions regarding these issues.''
Ronald Reagan won 54 percent of the votes of those over 50 in the 1980 election, according to a Gallup Organization report. According to the Statistical Abstract of the US Census Bureau, 74.6 percent of those 65 and older registered that year and 65.1 percent voted. The figures for aged 45 to 64 were 75.8 and 69.3 percent.
Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida, the congressional champion of the elderly in America, says of President Reagan: ''I think the elderly had a large part in his election. This time I think they're going to have a large part in his defeat.''
Given the diversity of the elderly, is there any possibility that this year they may vote as a bloc? ''I think they will,'' Representative Pepper says. ''I think more people will vote together to try to ensure the continuity and soundness of the social programs than they have before, because they've been put in jeopardy since the last election.''
Pepper remembers a Sept. 6, 1980, rally before thousands of senior citizens in Philadelphia in which he spoke for the Democrats and then Ronald Reagan spoke for the Republicans. Pepper sits in his Miami office with sun glinting through the palm trees outside and flourishes a clipping of a Philadelphia Inquirer story about that rally. ''Reagan Vows Support for Social Security,'' he quotes the headline, and notes that Reagan had promised there that ''every commitment made previously by the federal government would be faithfully kept.''
An octogenarian himself, Pepper was for several years the chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging. He resigned to become head of the powerful House Rules Committee. Explaining the views of the elderly in 1980, he says: ''The seniors said then (that) they had a man of their age group, 'cause he was then about 70. 'Here's a 70-year-old fella, he's one of us, we can count on him.' ... There was no reason - 'cause he's a very persuasive, a very gracious and charming fella - there was no reason the elderly wouldn't believe him, if they hadn't known his record as some of us did....''
Pepper then argues that what President Reagan actually did in office ran contrary to his promises: promising in a February 1981 joint speech to Congress that he would not cut medicare, but later cutting it by $12.3 billion; a few weeks later, asking Congress to cut $88 billion in social-security benefits over the next five years, a figure later reduced to $19 billion when Congress refused.
Pepper cites the bipartisan National Social Security Commission (he was a member), which reached a compromise that Congress passed into law ''to keep social security solvent and sound for the next 75 years.'' Yet by March of this year President Reagan had told the New York Times, Pepper points out, ''that social security would have to be revised, revamped, and restructured.
''And I think the seniors are going to remember it,'' he says, quoting an old Chinese proverb: ''Cheat me once, your fault; cheat me twice, my fault.'''
Pepper concludes, ''I hate to say it, and I say it with respect for the office of the president: His dealings with the elderly have been that of a clever slicker trying to get the most he can from them. He hasn't treated the senior citizens of this country fairly, nor has he been frank and truthful with them.''
A strong supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, Congressman Pepper is chairman of the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) senior citizen advisory task force.
A Republican spokesman, Sen. William Cohen of Maine, disputes much of Pepper's viewpoint on voting by the elderly and suggests that his party has much to offer older voters. Mr. Cohen, a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, says, ''It's a mistaken perception or misapprehension that senior citizens are going to vote in a homogenous fashion. They're not homogenous. They do have different interests and perceptions.
''In 1982 the Democratic Party very effectively scared many of the senior citizens with charges that the Republican Party was trying to destroy social security when in fact the Republican Party was trying to make it solvent. Immediately after the elections ... many of the same leading Democrats came and said, 'Yes, we do have a problem, and we've got to work on it in a bipartisan way, to fix it.' And we did.
''Now, with that behind us, I believe that the senior-citizen vote is going to go back to its more traditional, independent, and individualistic assessment of the candidates. I think that they now feel quite secure that the social-security system is solvent and funded and whatever delays in the COLAs (a six month delay in cost of living increases in '83) have been more than offset by the precipitious drop in inflation,'' Cohen says.
He points out that inflation has gone from nearly 14 percent down to about 3 or 4 percent now, and ''even President Reagan has called for and Congress responded to'' a COLA beginning in January whether or not the inflation rate dips below the 3 percent mandated by law.
The senator ticks off what his party offers elderly voters: ''The major accomplishment'' of pushing the rate of inflation down to its lowest point in a decade (between 3 and 4 percent); promise of ''economic dynamism'' and a sense of renewed optimism about the future, rather than a gloomy forecast that would have a negative impact. The elderly fare best in an economic atmosphere of increased productivity and prosperity, he points out: ''It's when the economy declines or when the engine stalls, as it did four years ago, that I have found there seems to be a clash of interests among the generations - young people, all groups fighting for an ever-diminishing slice of the pie.''
When asked about the variance between President Reagan's 1980-81 promises and the cuts he then tried to make in programs affecting the elderly, Cohen defends some of the President's actions. ''These are not net reductions, they are reductions in the growth of the programs. ... The President,'' he asserts, ''was faced with the reality that the social-security system was going bankrupt. He initially proposed a solution which even I didn't agree with. We supported it, but we were able to persuade him to change his mind on it and Congress reversed it. We supported him in his effort to try to restore some solvency to the social-security fund, but there were many of us who said 'this is the wrong way to go about it.' ''
Cohen suggests that the serious funding problems of medicare should be resolved in the same way the social-security problem was handled - bipartisan compromise. ''The only way we can resolve it is not pitting Republicans against Democrats, but having responsible people of both parties come to a fair solution.''
To seniors concerned about the President's March statement that social security would have to be restructured and reevaluated, Cohen says, ''The President can only propose; Congress disposes. The President is not going to be able to do anything without the consent of a majority in both Houses.'' And that overwhelming majority in both houses, he suggests, is ''committed to keeping social security solvent and seeing to it that our senior citizens are treated fairly.''
Whatever changes have to be adopted, he says, ''Congress will act with great care and sensitivity. So the President is not going to be in a position, in my judgment, to propose any radical restructuring of changes in it, if he were inclined to do so.''
Some 4.5 million elderly belong to the National Council of Senior Citizens. Jacob Clayman, its president, describes the organization as ''essentially progressive.'' Its membership, in 450 clubs across the country, is made up of labor-union retirees, church-oriented members, and those who join for its social activities, he says. Many are poor or near-poor, he adds, and minority membership is significant.
''We have little affinity for the present administration because the present administration has little affinity with the senior citizens of America,'' says Mr. Clayman. ''It's been four years of hacking away at social security and health care.''
The NCSC puts out a voters' guide on how members of Congress voted on senior-citizen issues. And Mr. Clayman explains, ''We don't endorse in a technical sense, but the board has recommended to our membership that we're for the nomination and election of Walter Mondale, because he's been a friend of the elderly, a very obvious friend, over all the years he was in Congress, and his voting record tells that story. One example of that is, he was a co-sponsor of medicare.''
Clayman says, ''We know that the group we represent is against Ronald Reagan, '' and adds that he suspects most NCSC members are Democrats.
''One thing is transparent to us,'' he declares: ''We know that Ronald Reagan will not get the same vote in 1984 among senior citizens that he did in 1980.''
Maggie Kuhn, founder or ''convenor'' of the Philadelphia-based Gray Panthers, is more outspoken. ''Ronald Reagan's attitude on the social-security system and his attempts to discredit it and persuade younger Americans that it's bankrupt and that our people are greedy old people taking money from the young has set old people in conflict with their own grandchildren. All of us resent it. He must go - out - off the set! He's an actor and the curtain is down.''
The Gray Panthers organization, with 60,000-70,000 members in 100 chapters in 40 states, is relatively small. But it is highly articulate among the groups representing the elderly. Maggie Kuhn emphasizes that while there is a great diversity among the elderly, voting preferences ''are going to be divided as they always are, by class. And the old people who are rich, there are not too many of them. Ronald Reagan and his cronies are not going to be identified with people most of whom are retired and not rich and not ideological elitists as are Reagan's sympathizers.''
Both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms address issues affecting senior citizens. William Greener, director of communications for the Republican National Committee, says, ''What our platform represents is a recognition of the sacrifices and contributions made by senior citizens to the fabric and well-being of the country under Republican leadership. Under Republican leadership it will be a period when stable economic growth allows the savings and earnings of the senior citizens to be protected from the ravages of inflation and a deteriorating economy which was present during most recent Democratic administrations.''
But there are few specific party promises to the elderly in the 37-line Republican platform segment on older Americans, which pledges only to seek repeal of ''the Democrats' social-security earnings limitation'' and demands passage of the President's Comprehensive Crime Control Package to combat ''insidious crime against the elderly.''
The Democratic platform, dealing with senior citizens in two segments totaling 187 lines, traces the party's contributions through several decades: social security, medicare, the Older Americans Act, the nutrition program, low-cost housing, elderly employment programs. It describes the Democratic Party as the champion of the elderly and ''assures senior citizens that it will maintain its longstanding faith with them.''
Like the Republican document, the Democratic platform cites few specifics. It promises to explore the recommendation that social security become an independent agency and says the party will not to allow benefits to be cut under medicare by raising the age of eligibility.
Vita Ostrander, president of the massive AARP, chides both platforms for a lack of specifics. ''The Democrats have said they will raise taxes. They have said they will protect social security. They have not said they will not make medicare cuts and they have not said they will not make COLA cuts.''
The DNC estimates that President Reagan has cut $26 billion to date from basic programs that are the lifeline for millions of the elderly people at the poverty level (14.6 percent of them). The programs include social security, medicare/medicaid, public housing, low-income energy assistance, legal services, food stamps (2 million elderly on them), and the Older Americans Act, which includes meals on wheels and other social and supportive services.
Democrats view the President's recent pledge to keep a social-security COLA in '84, even if inflation dips below the mandated level for COLAs) as a political ploy in an election year which would later revert to a past policy of benefit cuts. ''COLAs are something we would not tamper with,'' says Carl Tuvin, senior-citizens coordinator for the DNC. ''Because of administration cuts in social security and medicare, seniors are angry, and we think in 1984 we have a good chance of having seniors vote for the Democratic Party.''
But a few blocks away on Capitol Hill Sen. William Cohen counters: ''Older citizens tend to be more conservative in their views, certainly more conservative in their spending habits, out of sheer necessity. They are the natural constituency of the Republican Party.''
Perhaps the answer to whether the elderly will vote as a bloc this year, and for whom, is wrapped inside the latest figure (1982) on median income. For those under 65, it was $22,930. For those over 65, it was half of that - $11,041.