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Between young and old, a political collision

LAKEWOOD, Colo. >> Economic wreckage in America’s older population is easy to find in the ashes of the recession. And when combined with the politics of a presidential election next year and talk in Congress of cuts to the system of health and economic support for retirees, the result could be volatile.

In dozens of interviews over three weeks in this rapidly aging suburb of Denver, people talked about a collision of interests and, perhaps even more crucial, of generations. On one side are younger voters who are championing cuts in spending; on the other, older ones who want to retain the services they counted on getting when they retired.

Specific government programs like Medicare are at issue. Beyond that, many people said they perceived deeper debates about fairness and equity and — at their core — starkly different visions of the nation’s future and how public resources should be allotted in a time of straitened circumstances. Last month’s special election for a congressional seat in western New York, which turned in large part on older voters, offered a preview of the tensions. The Democratic candidate’s attacks on a Republican plan to overhaul Medicare seemed to resonate in the district, where a majority of the registered voters are 45 or older.

“The outcome there certainly suggests that there is an old-age Medicare voting bloc,” said Robert H. Binstock, a political scientist who studies aging at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Older voters have always tended to turn out more heavily than others at the polls, especially when they have issues at stake. But in the past, their generational differences with younger voters, at least in presidential voting, have been less clear. Now they are being mobilized by groups like AARP, which recently issued a national appeal to its members.

“You should not have to worry that you can’t afford to visit your doctor,” the appeal said. “We need to flood the halls of Congress with letters telling them to keep unfair cuts to Medicare and Social Security out of the discussion.”

In just two weeks, more than 200,000 emails filled inboxes in Washington.

Some experts say they believe a genuinely distinct older voting bloc could emerge. But either way, they say, there is no doubt that a season of political focus on the issues of aging — and a search by both parties for the allegiance of older voters — has begun.

“Age is up for grabs,” said Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles. “In the last election it was about the young vote and Hispanic vote — this time the issue is age.” In interviews here in Jefferson County — politically mixed, with more baby boomers than any other county in battleground Colorado — many people said their views and hopes about retirement, or the prospect of it around the corner, had fundamentally changed since the economic downturn.

Lin Stevens, 56, was attending a job-search class at a local shopping mall with her husband, Rick Craig, who has managed to find only temporary work in recent years. Their unemployment checks have run out, Stevens said, and they have no health insurance.

“My investments took a bath,” she said, “then being out of work for a few years — I’m sorry, but there’s not that much left. I’m going to need Social Security and Medicare.”

Their politics are in flux too. Stevens drifted from Republican roots to vote for President Barack Obama in 2008 and plans to do so again next year. Craig, who also voted for Obama, said he was less certain about 2012.

The landscape of battered states and municipalities agonizing over public employee benefits and cuts to school programs has already put older interests and younger interests at potential loggerheads — and set the table for the debate about how society should divide its resources.

“There could be an opportunity to talk about what kind of society we want,” said Nancy LeaMond, an executive vice president at AARP. She said that the needs of all generations have to be balanced and that AARP members are worried about their children and grandchildren as cuts to education and other programs ripple through states.

Whether the New York special election — won by the Democrat, Kathy Hochul, in a Republican-dominated district — portends anything for the 2012 general election, there is little doubt that among older voters, the tinder is dry. In that election, Hochul relentlessly pilloried her opponent as hostile to Medicare.

After her victory, the Democratic talking points often came down to a single sentence: Voters were saying no to the Republican budget overhaul plan put forward by Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., the House Budget Committee chairman, under which Medicare payments would be used to buy private insurance.

Republicans said the New York result reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the local candidates, not a broad national debate about Medicare or anything else.

A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, Kirsten Kukowski, conceded, however, that communication of Republican ideas on Medicare had probably fallen short. She said a campaign aimed partly at older voters and arguing that Democrats have no long-term plan to save the program would set the record straight in coming months.

There are reasons other than Medicare uncertainties for the anxiety among older voters.

At least 29 states have already cut financing for programs that serve the elderly and disabled, according to a report this year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research and advocacy group for low- and moderate-income people.

People older than 65 had the fastest rate of growth in bankruptcy filings of any demographic group even before the recession, according to a study last year by the University of Michigan Law School.

And the National Council on Aging, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates that 13 million older Americans are economically insecure, living on $22,000 or less and that age discrimination in the aftermath of the recession is rampant.

For older Democrats and Republicans alike, national polls say, tough times have focused many minds on Medicare and Social Security and other government programs as politicians talk more openly about addressing the nation’s huge deficit. An Associated Press-GfK poll last month said 54 percent of Americans thought the deficit could be cut without touching Medicare.

Meanwhile, the complexion of older voters is shifting, as tens of millions of baby boomers who cast their first presidential votes in the 1960s-’70s era of civil rights and social rebellion approach or enter retirement.

Binstock, of Case Western, said it is too soon to tell which party will win over older voters in 2012. Republicans did well among people older than 60 in last year’s midterm elections and in 2008, when exit polling indicated that older voters were more likely to favor repeal of the Democrat-led health care overhaul than younger voters.

But as the election approaches, the struggles of older people will no doubt fill television screens and advertisements. Consider, for example, Roseann Atencio’s recent television close-up.

A nonprofit group that works with older people in the Denver area recently chose Atencio, 62, a widowed former school lunch worker and a Democrat, as a subject for a documentary aiming to influence members of Congress.

Her struggles, from high blood pressure to finances, are real; she recently put her modest home up for sale because, she said, she cannot afford the upkeep. And her struggles in the videotaped interview in her kitchen were real, too — she had to be prompted to say some of the crucial lines that the filmmakers wanted, notably, “Please Pass the Older Americans Act.”

But her resolve and passion were the stuff that political ad makers dream about.

“Just make yourself heard,” she said, when asked about advice for other older people. “Don’t be afraid to speak up.”

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