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Panderers make their pitch for president

| Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

The rise of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential contest and Bernie Sanders on the Democrats' side represents a stunning political development: Populist insurgencies now threaten the “establishments” of both major parties.

For all this situation's apparent novelty, both men have succeeded so far due partly to the world's least original political tactic — pandering to the elderly.

There can be no solution to the nation's long-term fiscal imbalances that does not involve pruning Social Security and Medicare. The sacrifices involved need only be modest for the vast majority of seniors (and none for the small minority who are poor), though the longer we wait, the higher the cost.

Trump and Sanders say otherwise. The real estate magnate promises to “save Social Security without cuts,” in keeping with his pre-campaign claim that “cuts” are “not fair to the people that have been paying in for years.”

To be sure, Trump doesn't specify whether “cuts” mean raising the retirement age, reducing cost-of-living adjustments or taxing benefits to upper-income households. Nor has he said if he's thinking of extending the Social Security trust fund's life by raising payroll taxes. Barring some such changes, though, the trust fund will not have enough money to pay everyone as of 2034.

The socialist senator of Vermont tops Trump, promising to increase benefits by $65 a month while ensuring Social Security's solvency for 50 years. At least he's willing to say he'd achieve this miracle by raising taxes on higher earners by $1.2 trillion.

The problem is that you can go to that well only so many times. Yes, the rich should be taxed commensurate with their means. But why is padding the already well-protected 65-and-over group a high-priority use of that limited source of revenue?

You wouldn't know it from listening to The Donald and The Bern but the 25 million Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 “not only weathered the economic downturn that began in 2007 but made significant gains,” according to a recent New York Times report based on government data.

Median income for this cohort grew during the recession, while it fell for those under 55. Consumer spending and wealth were both significantly higher for those above 65 in 2013 than they were in 1989.

Small wonder that 43 percent of U.S. over-65s say they live “comfortably” and another 26 percent can “meet their basic expenses with a little left for extras,” according to a May 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center.

Meanwhile, only 31 percent of those 18 to 49 live “comfortably.”

Our insurgent populists might not care about those numbers but they obviously have a firm handle on the following data:

• 72 percent of citizens over 65 voted in the 2012 presidential election, easily the largest participation rate of any cohort, according to the Census Bureau

• the 65-and-over group was the only one that voted at a higher rate in 2012 than in 1964

• public opinion polls show that voters' willingness to consider trims to Social Security decreases with age.

Yes, the Trump and Sanders campaigns represent voter dissatisfaction with the other choices served up by the Democrat and Republican establishments. But they also illustrate the effect of societal aging on U.S. politics; their respective platforms were designed for an electorate in which seniors made up a slightly larger share (22 percent) in 2012 than they did in 1996 (20 percent).

What's more, older voters have been trending Republican. Gallup poll analyses show that voters who were over 65 in 2013 favored the GOP over the Democrats, 48 to 45 percent; two decades earlier, that same group of people favored Democrats 51 to 39 percent.

Sanders's Social Security proposals, which resemble those of other liberal Democrats in Congress, represent a Democrat attempt to buy back the elderly's loyalty. Trump's promise can be seen as an attempt to retain it.

“Republicans, if you think you are going to change very substantially for the worse Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security ... and at the same time ... win elections, it just really is not going to happen,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference two years ago.

The longer they stay in the race, the more Trump and Sanders might force rivals to play down entitlement reform — or repudiate it. Hillary Clinton already is moving in that direction.

In short, if the Trump and Sanders candidacies achieve nothing else, it might be to shrink the already limited range of politically acceptable debate on long-term fiscal challenges. It's yet another way in which they simultaneously epitomize and accelerate America's crisis of governability.

Charles Lane is a Washington Post columnist.

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