Mark this day. For the first time in history, a Democratic president has officially proposed to cut the Democratic Party’s signature New Deal program, Social Security:
President Obama next week will take the political risk of formally proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his annual budget in an effort to demonstrate his willingness to compromise with Republicans and revive prospects for a long-term deficit-reduction deal, administration officials say.
In a significant shift in fiscal strategy, Mr. Obama on Wednesday will send a budget plan to Capitol Hill that departs from the usual presidential wish list that Republicans typically declare dead on arrival. Instead it will embody the final compromise offer that he made to Speaker John A. Boehner late last year, before Mr. Boehner abandoned negotiations in opposition to the president’s demand for higher taxes from wealthy individuals and some corporations.
The way this was explained to me is that the liberal Democrats in the House put out a leftward proposal and the Democrats in the Senate put out a moderate proposal, which the president tacitly endorsed. The Crazy Republicans then came back with a rightward proposal so now the president has simply set forth a compromise between the Senate Dems and the Crazy Republicans. And it’s his final, final offer this time.
God help us if the Republicans wise up and take this deal. After all, it’s a more conservative budget than even their hero Ronald Reagan ever submitted.
This is what he proposes:
If Obama includes it in his budget, he is claiming this as a policy idea he supports before he even starts negotiations with the Republicans. This is terrible policy and terrible politics at the same time. In a budget document that has no actual policy impact but that symbolically represents what he stands for and who he wants to fight for, he will alienate senior citizens and the families who worried about taking care of them, he will split his political party down the middle, and– by being the first one to formally propose cuts to Social Security– he will hand Republicans a big political weapon to hurt Democrats in 2014.
I understand the president has political reasons he wants to do this. He wants to look like the most reasonable guy in the room, and he wants the Republicans to look like they are the extremists who won’t compromise. He doesn’t want the attacks that will come from the deficit hawk crowd if offers nothing on “entitlement reform,” and he feels like this is a modest cut compared with the budget ax the Republicans are threatening. He feels like he can lessen the impact of the Social Security cuts by adjusting the formula to protect the oldest and poorest recipients.
But, folks, this is rotten public policy, and all those political reasons pale in comparison to the damage he is doing here. With the demise or curtailment of most pensions, the drop in family wealth due to the collapse of the housing sector in 2008, the big unemployment numbers cutting into many families’ life savings, the flattening or decrease of wages for most workers, and the inflation in many essentials among those who are working driving down the ability to save for retirement, this is the absolute last time we should be looking at cutting incomes for retirees.
As to the idea that Obama will keep the most vulnerable low-income seniors from harm, I am very appreciative of that fact that he cares about them and is trying to preserve them from cuts. Obama’s compassion for the poorest of the poor is something to be lauded, one of his best values. But I used to do a lot of organizing with moderate income senior citizens, and I know a lot of middle-income seniors. I can tell you that even for those a little above the cut-off line but still living mostly on Social Security, they are not living in luxury, they are in fact just making it. When groceries or utilities or out-of-pocket health care expenses spike, it hurts and hurts bad. I have been in the apartments of seniors when utility prices were going on one of their periodic jumps, have seen what they can afford to eat, have felt the cold in their apartments in the winter because they can’t heat their place. I know in my heart, because I have seen the evidence up close and personal, that for a lot of seniors the $500 a year they will have lost from chained CPI a few years from now if this cut goes into effect will result in more seniors dying of hypothermia or malnutrition.
Most Americans, over 80 percent in polls I have seen, understand that cutting Social Security benefits is a terrible idea, and I believe that if that is what happens people will be angry. But even if the politics were not on our side, this is a moral issue pure and simple. The president should not propose cutting Social Security, and Democrats in Congress should raise hell and oppose him if he does. As Democrats, according to all that rhetoric I kept hearing during the campaign last year, we believe in fighting for the middle class, and this proposal punches the middle class– both older Americans and the families who care for them– in the gut.
Ok, so what do we do now?
First, we cannot simply sit back and expect the GOP to do our dirty work for us. After all, the way things are going, the Prsident or could start offering up new tax cuts for all we know. He’s either a terrible negotiator or he really, really wants these cuts. Either way, counting on him holding the line is probably not a good idea.
So, we have to buck up the Democrats. I know, I know. But they still have to face voters while the president has run his last election. They should be made very, very aware of what they are contemplating: attacks from both the left and the right in the next election. Any incumbent Democrat who could face a primary challenge will be facing withering criticism for voting to cut SS, veterans benefits and medicare. And if they are lucky to fight them off and win they will be attacked by the Republicans challenger on exactly the same issues. These are very, very popular programs which, by the way, don’t actually need to be cut. Anyone who votes for this will hear about it. If you have a Democratic congressional rep, give them a call and let them know that you will hold it against them. (Also too, if you have a Republican representative. They have to face voters too and it can’t hurt to remind them of that. And after all, they are just looking for reasons to oppose this …)
And call your Senators starting today. The pattern so far has been that Speaker Boehner will only suspend the Hastert Rule (allowing legislation to the floor without a Republican majority) if it is already passed with a bipartisan Senate vote. Best to try to stop it here first.
Meanwhile prepare for a barrage of savvy, world weary commentary from your fellow liberals telling you that this is no big thing and that Democrats will not suffer even a tiny bit if they vote for a common sense proposal like this one. You will be shushed and told to calm down and take a chill pill. In other words, you will be gaslighted by fellow liberals who are embarrassed that you aren’t being coolly accepting of something that is completely unacceptable. This is how this works. Tell them to STFU and move out of the way.
And recall this:
Responding to a flood of angry phone calls and letters from their elderly constituents, a growing number of Congressmen and Senators are seeking to repeal or revise the “Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988” enacted in June of that year. The amount and the tenacity of elderly opposition to the law, particularly to the new taxes that will fund it, took many Congressmen by surprise. It also has provoked an open and widespread grass-roots rebellion within the nation’s largest senior citizen lobby, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), whose national office pushed hard for the original legislation. Already, some 30 bills have been introduced to repeal the catastrophic act in whole or in part or to change the way it is financed. More bills are expected.
The cool kids should think twice before predicting a complacent acceptance of this proposal because sometimes the people do stand up and object. Especially when it comes to these programs. They don’t call it the third rail for nothing.