Saturday, January 22, 2011

The SOTU, Social Security and the future of the Democratic Party

Even McClatchy stoops to stenography sometimes. Margaret Talev and David Lightman do so in an article that reads almost like a White House press release about the upcoming SOTU on Tuesday, Obama's Tuesday speech to stress economy, civility McClatchy Newspapers 01/21/2011.

The main thing I'm watching for in Tuesday's speech is whether Obama endorses Social Security Phaseout. Which he of course won't call that, but rather "protecting its long-time viability" or something similar. But if he endorses an increase in the retirement age or lower cost-of-living adjustments for recipients or pretty much any of the proposals coming from anti-Social Security groups like his own Catfood Commission or Third Way (the corporate-oriented centrist group of which his new chief of staff William Daley was on the board), that will mean he's embraced Social Security Phaseout. Because apart from how damaging such proposals are in themselves, once a Democratic President leads an attack on Social Security, the political firewall that until not long ago made Social Security the so-called "third rail of American politics" will be gone.

The extent of the political effects of such a move by Obama are hard to guess. It's not hard to guess that it will hurt the Democrats. It will. But whether the political effect on them will be merely bad or catastrophic is hard to say right now. I suspect it will look more like the latter. The polling data are giving the Democrats a screaming warning about this, as Joan McCarter discusses in Progressive pollsters warn against Social Security cuts Daily Kos 01/20/2011. She characterizes it as "potential dire electoral consequences for Democrats should Social Security cuts happen on their watch."

She also quotes Dan Froomkin from Obama's Social Security Talk Is Turning Voters Off, Pollsters Say Huffington Post 01/19/2011, who summarizes, "the pollsters said that any Democrat seeking elected office in 2012 should be begging Obama not to say anything about Social Security cuts in his State of the Union address later this month."

And check out the fourth graphic in this report of a recent New York Times/CBS News poll on what kind of government spending people would prefer to see cut if something is going to be cut: Poll Responses on How to Cut the Deficit New York Times 01/20/2011.

It's a measure of the pitiful state of the Democratic Party that activist Democrats will be greatly relieved if the Democratic President this Tuesday refrains from demanding cuts in Social Security. No issue right now provides a more dramatic illustration of the very real gap between our political and media elites, on the one hand, and the large majority of the public, on the other. As Jerry Brown said in his gubernatorial inaugural speech this month, "Without the trust of the people, politics degenerates into mere spectacle; and democracy declines, leaving demagoguery and cynicism to fill the void."

The partisan effect of Obama proposing Social Security Phaseout would not primarily be a matter of how it's received by what our Pod Pundits call "the Left." Progressive activists will be able to identify ways in which Democrats are still better than Republicans, because they have a more pragmatic approach on South Ossetia, or they are willing to impose marginally greater restrictions on financial gambling by "too big to fail" megabanks, or whatever.

But many people, including many Democratic base voters, who are "lower-information" voters - i.e., they aren't hopeless political junkies - will be asking themselves, "If the Democrats aren't even willing to defend Social Security, what good are they?" And many of them will not be able to think of an answer to that question.

It's also important to understand that the politics of this aren't based on the kind of measurements along a scale of left to right to which our Pod Pundits and star reporters are addicted, with The Center being the bestest of all places. Nor entirely on rational calculations, which in any case are greatly limited by the sad state of our national press. The Republicans, whose Party has been pushing to phase out Social Security and Medicare, ran in 2010 as the defenders of Medicare! Their hook for this posture was the savings that the Obama Administration rightfully claimed in Medicare as a result of the adoption of health care reform. Health care reform didn't cut back Medicare eligibility. It's benefits are expected to produce a reduction in demand for Medicare services over time.

But the Republicans' claim that Obama cut Medicare, along with Sarah Palin's sleazy and dishonest "death panel" claim and other health care hysteria, have had a real effect in shifting older voters more into the Republican column, and that trend was clear in last year's elections. The shift of older voters more heavily toward the Republicans is a critically important factor in American political demographics right now.

And the Democrats did a poor job of spotlighting that Medicare claim as a falsehood in the 2010 campaign. So much so that it seems to be entering the category of "zombie lie" now, one that just won't die. David "Bobo" Brooks, whose expertise is delivering the Republican Party line in a compulsively calm tone, rolled it out on the PBS Newshour yesterday (Shields, Brooks on GOP's Repeal Effort, Obama's China Overtures), saying, " It is true that the Republicans have not decided -- have not asked for any painful stuff, like Medicare cuts, the way Obama to his credit did." (my emphasis) Actually, he didn't. But neither moderator Jim Lehrer nor Bobo's opposite ideological number Sleepy Mark Shields could be bothered to point that out.

So, not only will the Republicans be happy to facilitate Social Security Phaseout, because Wall Street would love to have that money still taken out of people's paychecks but put into "private savings" accounts that could be invested in stocks and managed by banks taking hefty cuts in fees. After they let Obama take the lead on cutting Social Security, they can campaign against him in 2012 for having cut Social Security!

Talev and Lightman inform us, "White House aides have declined to say which, if any, recommendations from his bipartisan deficit commission he'll put forward, or how he'd rein in spending on Medicare, Social Security or defense." (my emphasis)

They also report that the Third Way group, which favors Social Security Phaseout, is hoping that finally the Democrats can give up on all this social program crap and get down to the real business of comforting the very comfortable:

Jim Kessler is co-founder and vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic research group whose board recently included William Daley, Obama's new chief of staff. Kessler, whose group launched the idea of bipartisan seating at the speech, said: "I would love to hear him say that with the passage of health care, America's 85-year quest to construct a safety net is now complete and that America's major challenge going forward is long-term economic growth.

"It's important to shift the Democratic Party from one that's focused primarily on economic security to one that's focused primarily on economic growth." [my emphasis]
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