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Working In These Times

Thursday, Sep 2, 2010, 1:50 pm

Labor, Congressional Progressives Attack Simpson, GOP on Social Security

BY Art Levine

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In the weeks remaining before the November election, labor and progressives believe they've finally found an issue to help scare voters into keeping Democrats in power: the legendary "third rail" of American politics, Social Security.

Unfortunately, by going after the co-chairman of the presidentially-appointed fiscal commission, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson for comparing Social Security to a "cow with 310 million tits," they're also challenging a broader conservative framing of the deficit issue that the White House has largely accepted. That's the view that  bringing down deficits is more important than massive jobs creation spending to put Americans back to work. 

Yet liberal calls are mounting for Simpson to be fired from the commission by the AFL-CIO and its Alliance for Retired Americans, economist Paul Krugman and Rep. Jerry Nadler (hat tip to Politico and Firedoglake). Barbara Easterling, president of the Alliance, wrote to President Obama last week, denouncing a "pattern of disturbing, insensitive, biased and offensive comments by former Senator Alan Simpson....On behalf of the four million members of the Alliance for Retired Americans, I urge you to demand Mr. Simpson's resignation."

Yet GOP leaders, including economic point person Rep. Paul Ryan  (R-WI.), are also being hammered for directly or indirectly favoring the privatization and shredding of Social Security. In addition to various forms of privatization, deficit hawks in the GOP and on the deficit commission also favor extending the retirement age.

As the Washington Post political columnist Chris Cillizza points out:

Democrats, faced with a worsening national political climate and daunting historical midterm election trends, are turning to Social Security as an issue where they believe they can score political points and set the stakes of what a Republican-controlled Congress would look like.

At least a half-dozen Democratic House candidates as well as several Democratic Senators in tight re-election races have featured claims that the GOP wants to either privatize or eliminate the retirement plan entirely in new television ads, and party strategists promise there are far more commercials to come.

"When Leader John Boehner, Paul Ryan and House Republican leaders put privatizing Social Security and dismantling Medicare into their budget they drew a bright line: House Republicans fight for Wall Street, while Democrats fight for seniors who've worked hard and played by the rules," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Jen Crider. 

One example he and others cite is the campaign ad of Indiana Democrat Rep. Baron Hill seeking to save his seat from a GOP onslaught in a very competitve race:

In Wisconsin's Senate race, Senator Russ Feingold is in a surprisingly tight race that portends the possible loss of the Senate, and DNC chairman Tim Kaine contends that Social Security will help drive voters into the Democratic camp:

The chairman of the Democratic National Committee says Republican attacks against Social Security will help Russ Feingold and other Democrats in November’s elections.

DNC chair and former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine was in Milwaukee on Wednesday to open a new campaign office and to meet with Democratic candidates. When asked what issues would be winners for his party in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race, Kaine volunteered Social Security. Kaine specifically focused on Republican Senate candidate Ron Johnson’s comments comparing Social Security to a Ponzi scheme, a comparison Kaine says is being used by Republican candidates all over the United States.

Kaine calls the idea “radical” and “way outside the mainstream,” noting that Social Security had helped keep seniors out of poverty for 75 years. He says it provides a clear contrast between Johnson and Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold. He says it’s hard finding any governmental program of any kind that is as popular as Social Security.

Johnson has stood by his “Ponzi scheme” remarks, but says he’s a big supporter of Social Security. He says it just needs to be changed so that it remains solvent, and that a plan that partially privatizes Social Security deserves consideration. Feingold opposes any privatization and has been endorsed by a seniors group that wants to protect social security.

Yet attacking the GOP on Social Security could prove tricky for Democrats  if the President's own deficit commission proposes cuts or other changes -- like extending the retirement age before beneficiaries could collect -- that Washington insiders see as necessary if politically difficult. As Firedoglate observed this week:

House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are directly attacking Republican proposals not only to privatize but to cut Social Security benefits, which could prove extremely problematic after the results of the deficit commission get released in November.

The Speaker’s office pointed to a new book from “Young Gun” Republicans Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, touting economic ideas similar to Ryan’s “Roadmap” for deficit reduction. The Roadmap doesn’t actually reduce the budget, relying on made-up tax figures to reach its targets. And it provides massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans as well. But for the first time I can remember, the Democratic missive points directly to Social Security budget cuts proposed by the minority...

But if the Democrats end up  backing the deficit commission's findings after the election, it could anger many progressive  Democrats. Firedoglake's David Dayen contends,  “If Democrats run this explicitly on Social Security for two months, only to cut benefits in the lame-duck session, they’ll have lost the goodwill of a substantial portion of the base for a generation.”

Previously, Democrats have carefully and cynically attacked Republicans for wanting to privatize Social Security, and that they would “protect it.” This elides the prospect of voting with the cat food commission recommendations, which could include means testing or retirement age increases, both of which amount to benefit cuts. Here, the Democrats specifically charge that Republicans will cut benefits. And yet many of their top officials have flirted with the prospect of doing so.

On the other hand, the young white and minority voters who turned out in droves for Obama and are being courted this time around don't pay much attention to Social Security now, so it's not clear how much this hoary, decades-old chestnut of Democratic campaigns -- the GOP will take away your Social Security -- will work its magic this time around to close the huge enthusiasm gap.

Even so, liberal Democrats are making clear that they're going to oppose efforts by the deficit commission or the GOP to cut back in any major way on Social Security. Yet if liberals insist on holding firm on opposing "means testing" for the rich, which means that millionaires don't get Social Security payments like average Americans do, it could undercut their credibility in the fight against the  deficit hawkery so popular among Washington elites. Paul Krugman and Chris Hayes of the Nation liken the deficit-cutting bandwagon to the run-up to the Iraq war. Krugman observes:

"If the Iraq parallel is any guide, and deficits become intolerable for everyone, years from now, when the American economy is mired in a deflationary trap — long after most people will have conceded that austerity was a mistake — only those who went along with the mistake will be considered "serious," while those who argued strenuously against a disastrous course of action will still be considered flaky and unreliable."

Standing up against the commission now are leaders of the House progressive caucus, although their influence on final Congressional action remains unclear. As TPM reports today:

Democrats led by Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva are drawing a line in the sand before the White House's fiscal commission: If your report recommends cuts or other changes to Social Security, they will say, you'll lose our support.

In a letter to be sent to President Obama, obtained by TPM, House Democrats will pledge to vote against any legislation based on the commission's report unless Social Security is taken off the table.

The effort is intended to tie the commission's hands, at least on this issue.

"It's up to members of Congress to pre-empt the commission," says Alex Lawson, communications director for the advocacy group Social Security Works

Grijalva's effort is a response to signals and reports suggesting the commission, riven over issues like taxes and defense spending, is reaching common ground on Social Security cuts.

Meanwhile, bashing the GOP over Social Security remains good politics, if not a cure-all for what's ailing Democrats this year.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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