Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The November/December political minefield

"Number one, I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you." - Joe Biden 08/14/2012 (Michael O'Brien, Biden guarantees: 'There will be no changes in Social Security' NBC News 08/14/2012)

Digby at Hullabaloo and David Dayen at FDL News have been following Obama's pursuit of a Grand Bargain to cuts benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for quite a while. I've cited some of their recent posts below.

Obama has always positioned himself as someone who transcends party and who brings people together. Ending partisan divisions was the theme of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which instantly made him a national figure and in which he criticized the Cheney-Bush Administration by saying:

People don’t expect -- People don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. [my emphasis]
That turned out to be more than a turn of phrase. It expressed Obama's essential conservatism.

Is conservatism too strong a characterization? No. Any Democrat who supports cutting benefits for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid qualifies as a conservative Democrat, no matter what they say about him on FOX News and hate radio.

Now, the fact that Obama proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare in the 2011 debt-ceiling fiasco, and the fact that he griped to the New York Times just last week that Democrats didn't get enough credit for their willingness to cut benefits on Social Security and Medicare, doesn't mean that the Republicans aren't also lying about his record on Medicare in their current memo about how Obama "stole" $700 billion from Medicare. Savings are not benefit cuts. And neither Obamacare nor other Administration actions on Medicare have actually cut benefits to current or future recipients.

Still, I take it for granted that in the lame-duck session, whether Obama is re-elected or not, he will use the "fiscal cliff" melodrama to propose again his Grand Bargain to cut benefits for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He will ask for some cosmetic tax adjustments raising revenue from the wealthy. But the core of his Grand Bargain is benefit cuts for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

This is a terrible policy idea. And actually passing it will move us into a new, post-New Deal phase of American politics, trying to run the economy and society of the 2010s on the basis of policies that were already bad and obsolete in the 1920s.

It will also be a crucial test for the Progressive Caucus in the House and the Social Security supporters in the Senate, which currently includes Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Progressive Caucus undercut their credibility with Obama in the health care fight by backing down on the public option. Dozens of House members signed a statement saying they considered the public option a red-line requirement, that they would not vote for a reform plan that did not include the public option. But when Obama bargained away the public option, the Progressive Caucus folded and supported the "Obamacare" bill anyway. Even after the Blue Dogs insisted on adding a new anti-abortion measure to the law as a condition for their support. From that time on, Obama knew that the Blue Dogs were willing to kill his proposals to get what they wanted. And he knew that the Progressive Caucus was not willing to do so.

The fight in November-December to defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is even more crucial. It is almost certain to be - and certainly should be - a permanent dividing line in the Democratic Party. Anyone who supports benefit cuts in those programs doesn't deserve the votes or donations of anyone in the Democratic Party base. They all should have to face aggressive primary challenges in 2014. This will be a critical decision moment for all Democrats in Congress.

Now that Paul Ryan's nomination gives the Democrats a promising target with his plan to end Medicare that most Congressional Republicans supported and Romney has said he would have signed into law, I see three basic possibilities for the Grand Bargain during the Presidential campaign and the lame duck budget fight.

The most optimistic is represented by Biden's statement, "I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you." That would be for Obama and the Democrats to position themselves as the unconditional defenders of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits against the Republicans who want to cut them and make that a central part of the campaign. That won't stop Obama from proposing his Grand Bargain in the lame duck session. It would make it much harder to get it passed.

The Democrats being the Democrats, a second possibility is that they will just fumble the possibility to exploit the Republicans' weaknesses on those programs. That would most likely achieve this sad performance by emphasizing, for instance, that the Republicans want to end Medicare while the Democrats "only" want to cut its benefits.

Third, either of those two campaign courses might be interpreted by a re-elected Obama and the Congressional Democrats as a mandate to do the Grand Bargain to cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Links:

Tami Luhby, Ryan's controversial Social Security plan he doesn't discuss Yahoo! Finance/CNNMoney 08/14/2012. She reports that Ryan's idea for Social Security "include raising the retirement age and reducing benefits for wealthier retirees."

Digby, Speaking of Vice Presidents 08/14/2012

David Dayen, Biden: "There will be no changes in Social Security" FDL News 08/14/2012

Matt Stoller, Obama's Second Term Agenda: Cutting Social Security, Medicare, and/or Medicaid Naked Capitalism 07/29/2012

Digby, The Grand Bargain Arrives 07/07/2011

Digby, Obama Goes To China 01/15/2009. Digby in this post expressed an early worried that Obama was positioning to propose a Grand Bargain that reduced "entitlements", the buzzword for opponents of Social Security that means benefits provided by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Sadly, her worries turned out to be very well-founded. She wrote then, "Obama is empowering the Republicans and the Blue Dogs with this fiscal responsibility rhetoric and perhaps he believes they will reward him by acting in good faith."

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