Stopping Obama from Doing the GOP's Dirty Work on Social Security
January 14, 2011 - 6:54pm ET
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As usual, the Democrats are on track to do the Republicans’ dirty work—only to suffer the political fallout later on. What else could one conclude from the rampant rumors that President Obama will signal his willingness to “compromise” (read: cut) on Social Security in the State of the Union address? Anyone who doubts that this would amount to political suicide, hasn’t read National Review editor, Ramesh Ponnurru’s column in the New York Times last Friday, instructing Republican politicians that they should wait for President Obama to act first on Social Security “reform” (read: benefit cuts). Here’s the kicker: Ponnurru specifically suggests that Republicans should champion “entitlement reform,” if, and only if, Obama dangles Social Security as an area of compromise in the State of the Union address. As friends of the President, we progressives must stop him from granting Ponnurru’s wish—and the wishes of so many conservatives eager to have the President do their bidding. Click here to read Ponnurru's column.
Embracing Social Security cuts is a lose-lose strategy for President Obama and the Democrats. In the event that the President pursues this strategy, against the loudest objections of his base, there are essentially two possible outcomes, neither of them good for Democrats. If the President’s drive to cut Social Security encounters limited public uproar and, with the help of Republican cooperation, he gets good press for being “bipartisan,” Democrats will have given Republicans political cover for achieving one of their coveted policy goals, and screwed the country in the process. If the President “goes first” on Social Security cuts, and the public reacts in horror—a likelier scenario— not only will the Republicans jump ship, they will also waste no time using it against the President. They will paint themselves as Social Security’s defenders, standing between the public and the big, bad Social Security-hating President.
If this strikes you as unfeasible, just remember how disingenuously the Republicans hung Medicare cuts on Obama’s neck during the healthcare debate. The Republican party that once denounced Medicare's creation as "Socialized medicine," and perennially advocates voucherizing it, had no problems claiming the Medicare Advantage cuts in the healthcare reform bill amounted to “pulling the plug on Granny,” and calling end-of-life counseling, “death panels.” Should Democrats yield the high ground on Social Security, it would be “death panels” all over again.
Ponnurru and other conservatives have been salivating over huge cuts to Social Security for years. But unlike Democrats, they are far more attuned to the political costs of actually pushing for benefit cuts. Bush’s privatization effort went down in flames, and Reagan’s cuts before that. Social Security is still the “third rail” in American politics, and Republicans have already learned that the hard way.
Until recently, the Democrats knew it too and skillfully exploited public suspicion of Republicans on Social Security. As a result, for decades, the public trusted Democrats to deal with Social Security more than Republicans by huge margins. Along with Medicare, Social Security was the Democrats’ bread and butter, an issue they could turn to for electoral victories in the very worst of political climates.
But now, on the heels of a GOP smear campaign accusing President Obama and the Democratic Congress of “raiding” the Social Security trust fund, the public actually trusts Republicans more. Worse still, Democrats have lost the support of seniors, at one time one of their most reliable constituencies. In the 2010 elections alone, Democrats lost seniors by 21 points. To put this in perspective, President Obama only lost seniors by 8 points in 2008, amid an unprecedented surge in participation from young and minority voters. The President cannot afford to lose seniors by 21 points in 2012.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the drop-off in support from seniors in 2010 was the result of the Republicans’ Medicare lies. At least with Medicare, though, it was not the President’s fault. But if the President does the Republicans’ dirty work on Social Security, it will be. He will be bargaining away the Democrats' last, best poker chip. And when the 2012 elections roll around, we will all be sorry we didn’t do more to stop him.
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