Who could’ve seen it coming?
Progressives could be forgiven for developing something of a Cassandra complex when it comes to the Democratic Party’s economic stances. Here’s the latest case in point:
The Washington Post and Politico have warned us that Republicans, led by Karl Rove’s dark-money outfit, are attacking Democratic candidates for supporting the “bipartisan” cuts to Social Security that were all the rage in Washington for a few years.
Amid what the Post’s Lori Montgomery calls “charges of hypocrisy,” Democrats like Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina are being slammed for supporting increases in the retirement age and cuts to future benefits. Adding insult to injury, Republican ads are mocking the once-revered, supposedly “bipartisan” Simpson-Bowles deficit proposal as a “controversial plan” that “raises the retirement age.”
It is both those things, of course. It does raise the retirement age, and it is controversial - controversial enough to be opposed by most Republicans, as well as overwhelming majorities of Democrats and independents, according to polls.
But the conventional wisdom has insisted for years that Democrats who endorse cuts to their party's signature programs will be handsomely rewarded, with both the gratitude of voters and the fraternal support of their Republican colleagues. Instead they're being pilloried for taking unpopular and economically unsound positions.
Who, oh who, could have predicted it?
Told You So
There’s no polite way to say this: some of us have been trying to warn the Dems for years. Here are some examples, from the written history I know best: my own. (If you don’t want the “told you so’s,” feel free to skip ahead. We won’t blame you - even though this is only a partial list):
● Four years ago, on November 10, 2010, Roger Hickey and I wrote an analysis of a poll sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future that quantified the unpopularity of the Simpson-Bowles plan.
● On November 4, 2010 this author pointed out that insiders were marginalizing Social Security defenders as “the left,” while dishonestly conveying the range of options available.
● In a piece that ran on November 16, 2010, I pointed out that only six percent of the electorate agreed that “deficits” should be a congressional or presidential priority. On December 1, 2010 I wondered who will protect the Democrats from their own austerity rhetoric.
● In January of 2011 we used data from Social Security Works to note that Democrats had blown a 38-point lead over Republicans as the party voters trusted with their Social Security benefits, largely as a result of this “bipartisan” benefit-cut talk. That piece noted that Republicans had campaigned on an equally hypocritical “Seniors’ Bill of Rights” — and took the House that year.
● In March of 2011 I warned Dems away from the false rhetoric from the right-leaning crowd, especially the rhetoric that asserts that it is somehow more “adult” to talk about unnecessary and punitive cuts for the American people than it is to discuss tax increases for millionaires.
● On May 16, 2011 we pointed out that the Democratic Party’s reputation was endangered by the spectacle of leading Democrat Bill Clinton and leading Republican John Boehner hanging out at a “fiscal summit” and agreeing that Social Security must be cut.
● On June 22, 2011 we warned that Washington’s anti-Social Security deficit hysteria amounted to a “war on the young” that could depress turnout among younger voters (a key concern in this year’s races).
● In a piece that ran three years ago, on December 9, 2011, I pointed out that Republicans gave Dems a sucker punch and ran to their left in “entitlements” (Medicare and Social Security). We mentioned again that the “Seniors Bill of Rights” help them win in 2010.
● A piece published on April 25, 2011 once again lamented the fact that mainstream political opinion on Social Security was being “marginalized” and excluded from Beltway debate. Another, on November 7, 2011, pointed out that Simpson-Bowles was based on economic mythology.
● On July 17, 2012 we warned Democrats and progressives that the slick “No Labels” package, supposedly a “nonpartisan” initiative, was a corporatist right-wing project in disguise - one that had Social Security in its sights.
(Democrats cried foul this week when “No Labels” backed Tea Party candidate Cory Gardner against incumbent Democrat Mark Udall in the Colorado Senate race. To preserves the illusion of impartiality, the cynical outfit backed a Democratic House member at the same time. But the Udall/Gardner race is much more important, and almost certainly much closer.)
● On September 7, 2012 we reminded Democrats that the President’s offer of a Social Security compromise didn’t lessen the right’s fervor for bringing him down. On October 4, 2012 we reminded Democrats about the GOP’s “Seniors Bill of Rights” gambit again and cautioned them that a deal would lead to a double-cross.
● We warned Democrats on November 30, 2012 - two years ago - that “fiscal cliff” deals and similar proposals were a Wall Street scam.
● On February 4, 2013 we reminded readers of the dishonesty, as well as the personal vulgarity and excess, at the heart of the Simpson Bowles agenda.
I know we said you could jump ahead, but don't skip this part!
On April 9, 2013 we warned Democrats about Obama’s decision to incorporate the chained-CPI benefit cut into his budget. That meant Democrats could be labeled the “anti-Social Security party.” We wondered how it would take Republicans to attack the president for adopting cuts they've wanted all along.
On April 10, 2013 we reported the results: It only took fifteen minutes for a GOP official to call Obama’s move a “shocking betrayal of seniors.”
And that was for adopting their own preferred policy. Now let's continue.
● On April 11, 2013 we pointed out that the GOP budget did not include this benefit cut, placing Dems in a perilous position, and provided ten other facts about the “chained CPI” - another Simpson-Bowles proposal.
● In September of 2013, we warned Democrats away from the misguided austerity language political theorist Corey Robin has described as “eat your peas” rhetoric.
● On October 20, 2013 we cautioned Dems that “any scenario that leads to Social Security or Medicare cuts would be bad for seniors. It would also be bad for any politician who supported it.”
● On March 27, 2014 we reported on the central role Bill Clinton has played in steering his party in this disastrous direction, as leader of the Wall Street Democrats.
I’m not claiming any special prescience on this issue. I’m just one of a number of people who have been making these observations for years. But now, with the election a few days away, we learn that “with Republicans in striking distance of winning the Senate, they are suddenly blasting the idea of trimming Social Security benefits.”
And all the faux centrists are saying, How could we have known?
The Latest Betrayals
The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim and Sabrina Siddiqui pithily note that “for decades, corporate strategy in Washington depended on bipartisan compromise to push through policies unpopular with the public.” Any crack in that facade leads to infighting - and, perhaps, to democratic representation in the halls of Congress.
Now the cracks are showing. The Post reports that Democratic Rep. John Barrow has been accused of “leaving Georgia seniors behind” by supporting “a plan that would raise the retirement age to 69 while cutting Social Security benefits.” (That’s Simpson Bowles.) Politico’s Brian Faler reports that Rep. Joe Garcia is accused of “failing seniors.”
Karl Rove’s organization, Crossroads GPS, accused Hagan of supporting the same “controversial plan.” Gardner appears in a new ad with his grandmother while promising to “honor every penny we promised today’s seniors.” (Did you catch the word “today”? See what he did there?)
The Post describes the Simpson Bowles plan, accurately, as a proposal that was “once venerated in both parties.”
The theory, we were told, was that “Republicans would raise taxes” - although Simpson Bowles leaned heavily on the middle class, rather than the wealthy - in return for Democratic cuts to Medicare and Social Security. In truth, most of Simpson Bowles’ measures would have hit the middle class and lower-income Americans the hardest.
Even its supposedly more “evenhanded” measures, like means-testing Social Security benefits, were designed in a way that would have hit the “99 percent” much harder than the wealthy.
The Calvary Isn't Coming.
The plan’s two authors - a hedge-fund Democrat and the Republican scion of political influence and personal prosperity - spared no effort in pitching their plan as “courageous” (as if coddling billionaires takes courage) and “tough-minded” (as if pursuing corporate and billionaire funding requires toughness).
Voters weren't buying it.
Predictably, Simpson and Bowles have now taken to describing the hapless Democratic victims of their political scheme as “brave.” The deal’s other Republican advocates, like Senator turned Wall Street-funded pitchman Judd Gregg, simply shrug their shoulders at the betrayal. “In elections,” Gregg told the Post, “you do whatever you think will work.”
Sometimes the “bipartisan” dealmakers let their conservative biases slip in subtle ways. Maya MacGuineas of “the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget” is a leading member of this lobbying effort, which is funded in large part by billionaire Pete Peterson as well as an array of defense contractors and bailed-out Wall Street banks. Said MacGuineas, “Attacking Democrats who have been willing to break with their party’s orthodoxy sets back the traditionally Republican agenda of entitlement reform tremendously.”
To this well-heeled and well-funded crowd, Social Security and Medicare represent liberal “orthodoxy,” rather than highly successful and popular programs that should be expanded. Cuts to these programs are “reform.” And the desire to cut them represents Republican “tradition.”
George Orwell would be proud. Meanwhile, Democrats who backed this bill - and who were promised bipartisan "cover" for adopting this fundamentally conservative plan - are waiting for reinforcements that will never arrive.
In an interview for The Zero Hour, the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim warned of what MacGuineas describes as “mini-bargains” - small deals that chip away at the nation’s social contract one piece at a time, rather than in the more wholesale manner proposed by Simpson Bowles. And now, according to the Post, the first such bargain may be looming on the horizon.
Republicans are now considering another budget showdown, along the lines of previous years' "hostage crises" against the American people and their government. And Lori Montgomery reports that
With a deadline on the debt limit looming again sometime next year, some Republicans have been quietly discussing the possibility of boosting Treasury borrowing power in exchange for adopting the new inflation measure, among other cuts to entitlement programs.
Democrats from the President on down will undoubtedly to publicly sign on to a deal like that. They’ll be told that voters will embrace them for it, praising them for their “bravery” and wisdom. And they’ll undoubtedly be reassured that their Republican voters are willing to surrender some of their long-held principles, too, just as long as Democratic programs are cut more deeply - and Democrats sign on to the deal first.
And when things get ugly for Democrats in the next election, they’ll undoubtedly be asking themselves once again:
Who could have seen it coming?