This isn't the silly season; it's the senior season. Presidential candidates are falling all over themselves trying to persuade seniors that they will give them more freebies -- whether the seniors need a new handout or not.
Why not? Voters under age 55 have uttered not a peep as George W. Bush and Al Gore pledge to tap into surpluses paid by working stiffs so that they can appear to be Santas for seniors. Rich seniors, poor seniors -- it matters not. Both candidates agree that all seniors deserve a prescription-drug benefit. Older Americans vote, older Americans get the goodies.
"It's a year 2000 twist on the age-old Robin Hood story," Rich Thau of the Gen X group Third Millennium noted. "Instead of take from the rich and give to the poor, it's take from the nonvoters and give to the voters." It would be one thing if Bush and Gore were proposing programs to benefit needy seniors, those who struggle to pay their prescription-drug costs. But nooo, they want to give something to everyone, including the richest seniors.
It would be one thing if they proposed that affluent seniors pay for this new welfare benefit, so that taxpayers won't have to fund the new gimme with general revenues. Alas, as the New York Times reported Sunday, Bush would raid federal coffers to subsidize 25 percent of these bennies. Gore proposes a 50 percent subsidy -- for a more expensive program.
Call them Grabby and Grabbier.
"It's very easy to demagogue on this subject," said Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, an entitlement watchdog group. "There are people who have to make a choice between food and medicine. The question is, do you create an entire new entitlement program for everybody because there are some people who need it? Our answer is no. It ought to be targeted for those who need it most."
And how. Already some 40 percent of the federal budget goes to seniors or people age 62 or older -- and Baby Boomers haven't started retiring yet. The Concord Coalition figures that in 2020, "the big three senior benefit programs" -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- will consume 67 percent of the budget. By 2030, that figure could hit 77 percent.
Don't expect to hear those numbers when both nominees are out to woo Florida. Neither candidate talks about fiscal restraint or the need to means-test new benefits. Instead, each warns that the other one's plan won't deliver as many goodies as seniors want.
Bixby noted: "Bush is even falling into the trap of getting people mad at Gore's plan because the premiums are so high. Wake up, folks. If we're going to add a new benefit, it's important that people pay for as much as they can."
When will the madness stop?
"Not until after the election," opined New Jersey GOP Gov. Christie Whitman, in town yesterday stumping for Bush. "Seniors are one of the most organized, loudest and most capable-of-delivering-votes group of any. I don't think you'll ever hear either candidate say, `You're getting too much.' What you're hearing from Bush is a little bit more of `We can't do everything.' That's getting into it slowly. And you have to build up to it slowly."
She's right about the need to go slowly -- and that's scary. If today's taxpayers paid attention to the issues, if they acted like seniors and demanded that Gore and Bush do something for their age group, savvy pols wouldn't dare promise affluent seniors benefits paid for by the sweat of working mothers and fathers.
If seniors are pushing for too much, then the under-55 crowd is pushing for too little. My generation is the patsy generation. We let Washington give our hard-earned dollars to wealthy seniors. And when we retire, there won't be much left for us.