Democratic Senate: Progressives, Populists Win

It’s worth taking a moment to make sure Tuesday night’s Senate victories sink in. First, the big three.

Ohio

Sherrod Brown (D) – 50%
Josh Mandel (R) – 45%

Sherrod Brown is a tenacious, strongly pro-labor, staunch defender of Social Security and Medicare who introduced and pushed legislation to break up the “Too Big To Fail” megabanks (twice!). He’s pro-choice, pro-marriage equality and a key progressive force in the Senate. He also represents the most fiercely contested swing state in the nation. From the get-go, Brown’s re-election campaign was the top target of Karl Rove and corporate interests. They threw everything at him: $40 million worth of gold-plated kitchen sinks. Sherrod Brown, as the saying goes, has all of the right enemies. He also has all of the right friends and a willingness to fight for his core values and the interests of regular working people in Ohio. That combination helped him carry the day.

Massachusetts

Elizabeth Warren (D) 54%
Sen. Scott Brown (R) – 46%

Be afraid Wall Street, be very afraid. Elizabeth Warren just defeated your favorite Senator in her very first campaign.

Wisconsin

Tammy Baldwin (D) – 51%
Tommy Thompson (R) – 46%

Tammy Baldwin proudly self-identifies as a Wisconsin progressives and she happens to be openly gay. Tommy Thompson is a former four-term Governor who the Republican establishment was thrilled to get as their party’s nominee. Tammy beat Tommy by 6 points.

A similar story played out across the country. New Mexico, which up until recently was considered a swing state, is now represented by two progressive populist Democrats as Martin Heinrich joins Tom Udall in the Senate. Progressive Democrats Chris Murphy (Connecticut), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Ben Cardin (Maryland), among others, all won big.

This brings me to the widely and deservedly mocked pre-election piece by Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, which claimed that the make-up of the Democratic coalition means that Democrats have a progressive problem.

The pressure on Obama to deliver for this liberal base will be powerful. Already, top left-wing groups are pressuring him not to buckle on a grand bargain that includes any entitlement cuts.

The Senate races offer the perfect cautionary tale to this impulse. Democrats have a good shot in Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia and Indiana because they have moderate Democratic candidates and incumbents who often see the president — and the party back in Washington — as out of tune with a center-right country.

Set aside for the moment that this isn’t a “center-right country” (the Democratic presidential candidate has won the popular vote in 5 out of the last 6 elections). Bob Kerrey, who embraced everything Beltway “centrists” have ever called for and then some, still lost in Nebraska by 16 points. Tim Kaine won in Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp won in North Dakota after running as mainstream Democrats on a lot of things, including the very popular earned benefit programs out of touch inhabitants of the Beltway bubble would just love to hack away at. Kaine did an event with Social Security Works. When asked at a debate whether he would vote for the Bowles-Simpson co-chairmen proposal as it is, he said that he wouldn’t while rightly pointing out that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit. Heitkamp talked about the budget deficit a lot but explicitly opposed “putting Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block.” She also ran on the Buffett Rule and the ACA. “Be a ‘moderate’ and cut Social Security and Medicare!” is a nonsensical statement. It’s not just progressives and virtually the entire Democratic voting coalition that oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It’s a clear majority of the country as a whole.

Democrats don’t have a progressive problem. Progressive Democrats win on the West coast and East coast. Progressive/populist Democrats win in the Midwest, specifically “blue collar blue” states Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mainstream Democrats can win in the Southwest and New South. Going forward, Democrats won’t need conservaDems to build a durable Senate majority like we used to. They weigh us down (see: recovery efforts in 2009) and increase the chances that all kinds of Democrats will lose their seats, they drain resources that could go to other races and they still lose despite all of their playing to DC’s warped idea of what constitutes the “center.” Getting policy results matters. Turning out your coalition matters. Beltway positioning games? Not so much.

Of course, running progressive/populist Dems doesn’t mean we can always overcome bad fundamentals, like the awful economy and vastly different midterm electorate that defeated Democrats in 2010. Joe Sestak, for example, lost in Pennsylvania — but just barely. And he was just one of many cases of progressive/populist/mainstream Democrats outperforming conservaDems in similar races.

Every cycle I choose four of five Senate campaigns early on that I see as especially important to focus on. I’ve focused on winners before: Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) and Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island) in 2006; Jeff Merkley (Oregon), Tom Udall (New Mexico) and Al Franken (Minnesota) in 2008. Tuesday night was the first time all of my picks — Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin, Martin Heinrich and Mazie Hirono — were victorious. This does not make me, or any of the many others who advocated for these candidates geniuses. But it does help show why the timidity lobby should be largely ignored. Their model is fatally flawed.

How can Democrats keep the momentum going?

John Kerry and Dick Durbin may be headed for cabinet positions in President Obama’s second term, which would mean opportunities to elect new Senators in Massachusetts and Illinois.

2014 priorities include re-electing Jeff Merkley in Oregon, Tom Udall in New Mexico, Al Franken in Minnesota and Tom Harkin in Iowa. In 2016, a presidential year, Republicans will be defending freshmen Senators in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

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iHawk

There’s never a shortage of candidates and prominent commentators who portray themselves as hawks: vigilant, proactive, ready to descend onto a threat. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. The problem is that too many of these self-styled political hawks are hawkish about the wrong things. They’re more like peacocks (they try to call attention to themselves) or ostriches (when it comes to the most pressing and realistic threats their heads are placed firmly in the sand). If there was a bird that let out some kind of “Yeah, look at me! I’m so hawk-like!” noise before crashing itself into the ground with great ferocity they would be like that bird too. This brand of political hawk goes through a four step process.

1. Be very proud of yourself
2. Ignore the most pressing threats and opportunities
3. Remain very proud of yourself
4. Repeat

The “hawk” label is frequently used as it relates to foreign policy, as a crude and dated way to denote whether someone is supportive of military action. It may have outlived its usefulness. Self-professed “hawks” misled our country into the disastrous war in Iraq. They want to keep us in Afghanistan, as if years 11, 12, 13, and 14 would be the charm. Politically involved younger voters whose peers have had to fight these wars for inordinately long periods of time aren’t very big on foreign policy hawks of any kind but they’re downright infuriated by the “chickenhawk” variety of the foreign policy hawk and rightfully so. Chickenhawks are all for rushing into wars in a litany of places as long as they are nowhere near the action. Chickenhawks casually send their fellow Americans to war, and then go AWOL on the resulting PTSD, brain injuries, joblessness and homelessness among veterans—and veterans care in general.

On economic policy front we see the the  self-proclaimed “deficit hawks” like leading “fiscal conservative” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The fiscal conservative label Ryan wears so proudly is meant to, through the sheer force of the word “fiscal,” cast a highly destructive and incoherent set of positions as inherently virtuous. These fiscal conservatives fail to articulate a credible view of when and how a budget deficit negatively impact the real economy while simultaneously making wildly inaccurate statements about what is driving the deficit they are supposedly Very Serious about.

Fiscal conservatives talk themselves up as noble tellers of “hard truths.” This is ironic, not just because their “hard truths” are aggressively deceptive (so much for the “truth” part), but because they’re the ones who haven’t yet been sufficiently and publicly confronted with what for them will be a hard truth: there’s little reason to believe they care about the deficit at all. There’s every reason to think they’re trying to use it as political cover for a long-standing agenda. This goes back to Lewis Powell’s 1971 memo that became a blueprint for the conservative movement. Yelling “look at the deficit!” when there’s a Democrat in the White House is in fact important to conservatives, the deficit itself isn’t. “Fiscal conservatism” is an attempt to put a vaguely respectable sheen on the real agenda of redistributing even more wealth and power upwards, giving even more tax breaks to the most wealthy despite their already very low tax rates, and cutting or eliminate Social Security and Medicare because the programs are very successful and broadly popular and conservatives can’t stand it. “Fiscal conservatism” is the right’s operational cover for their deep-seated ideological opposition to progressive economic policy

Those in the media who covered Paul’s Ryan’s “Listen To Me Say ‘Deficit’ A Lot” Tour in a favorable light might prefer to ignore the assertion that Ryan is a blatant fraud with goals far outside of the mainstream. But this view is backed up by Ryan’s voting record, the content of his proposals, his stated beliefs and the easily observable conservative playbook. The deficit gives them something to attribute a bad economy to and a theory of how electing them will fix it. Their expressed concern for the deficit runs into an obvious problem when they make one of their top domestic priorities eternal, ever more extreme tax cuts for the wealthy. In an attempt to paper over this glaring inconsistency, fiscal conservatives trot out discredited theories like Arthur Laffer’s infamous Laffer curve and/or the right-wing spin on “dynamic scoring.” This is the only fig leaf Republicans like Paul Ryan feel they need to declare with one breath that the deficit is a terrifying threat before yelling “Tax cuts! Thurston Howell III, come get more tax cuts!” with the next.

Note that movement conservatives like Grover Norquist openly talk about “starving the beast.” This translates to decimating revenue in order to give conservatives a pretext for hacking away at things that work and people like but make Zombie Ayn Rand cry. Norquist has actually been pretty straightforward about this. They’re not really concerned about the deficit and of course they want less revenue.

Republican strategists try to spin all of this into something they can pitch as constructive. Because of their agenda’s status as a miserable failure, and the fact that almost all of its component parts are unpopular, it has to be repackaged often. It’s trickle down economics, no it’s supply side, no the empowerment agenda, no “supply side economics for the working man,” as the Wall Street Journal and now Rick Santorum put it. (More accurate title: four flat tires for the driving man.)

Shorter Trickle Down Re-Re-Remix: Here’s the latest slight variation on the same agenda. We’re going to claim it addresses problems we don’t really care about and have never cared about. This will allow us to continue our efforts to dismantle the successful policy we’ve always hated.

For the record, elected officials who are genuinely concerned about the long-term deficit would be talking about rising health care costs. They would be proposing things that infuriate AHIP (insurance companies) and PhRMA (drug companies). Grover Norquist would be their lifelong sworn enemy. And if they’re truly interested in economic responsibility, elected officials in either party will be adamant about putting job growth first. The deficit is a symptom of the Great Recession, not the disease itself.

The hawkish impulse isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just being misapplied. As an example, here are some threats and challenges that warrant a hawkish outlook:

Unemployment

Any improvement on this front is obviously welcome. And while it’s certainly true that the GOP’s Mitch McConnell strategy and the demonstrable (and predictable) failure of austerity hysteria slashonomics have blocked and hobbled recovery, Democrats and progressives shouldn’t lose sight of the reality that we’re a painfully long way off from what should be our goal: fully employment. We’ll never get anywhere close to where we need to be if we’re satisfied with clearing a relatively low bar. As far as the election goes, it would be helpful if Democratic candidates remembered that most people will react negatively to statements that comes across as in any way self-congratulatory. You really can’t blame them for this. We’re still in a bad place and at this rate we will be for quite some time. It’s much better to talk about determination to make progress, and how we’ll go about doing that, than to tout improvement most have yet to feel. There’s a point at which improvement will make people receptive to more positive language, but we’re not there yet and we won’t get there anytime soon unless the improvement is significant and sustained.

Once the economy crosses that point, the political capital Democrats gain needs to be put towards the kind of recovery effort that can get more results. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: we don’t need to “pivot” to unemployment as much as we need to kick the jobs crisis in the face, repeatedly, until it goes away. And for the sake of actually learning from history and the 1937 mistake, let’s not prematurely pivot away from jobs (again). (See: Paul Krugman)

Investment deficit

Other countries aren’t hesitating to build a 21st century infrastructure, Meanwhile, we’re falling behind. Combating the crumbling of America (details from the American Society of Civil Engineers) is a no-brainer. It’s as practical as it gets. Yet we’re still not doing it. Every day that we don’t act we fall further behind China and the European countries that take infrastructure seriously. Those who sleep on this challenge embody the old caricature of a “liberal” as someone with their head in the clouds. Politicians like to talk about competitiveness and American greatness, but if they’re not investment deficit hawks their talk of economic patriotism is empty.

Note: Manufacturing, the trade deficit, and China’s predatory practices fit in here or in the broader discussion about jobs.

Union busting

Labor unions built the American middle class and are essential to rebuilding it. We’ve seen a systematic and unrelenting attack on labor by the extremely well-financed union-busting lobby. This attack has delivered for those, like the Koch brothers, who put insane amounts of money into it. Virulently anti-union right-wingers and special interests have dramatically tilted the playing field against unions. This has a profound negative impact on all working people, whether they’re in a union or not (see: wages). The wrecking crew is knocking out the pillars of the middle class.

As a recent CEPR report shows, it’s the forces who target unions for political reasons, not other factors, that are responsible for the decline in union membership. We never had a strong, broad middle class without the right to organize and we never will. If the labor movement dies, it will not be due to natural causes. And if the labor movement dies, the hopes for a vibrant American middle class die with it.

Climate change

Climate change is right at our front door. Yet the same Republicans who talk about not wanting to pass things on to future generations ignore that anyone planning on being alive in 10 years, let alone their children, is going to be most angry with those in power over the destruction wrought by catastrophic climate. The absolute least the Inaction Caucus can do is start looking into cameras and saying what those with any shred of honesty know to be true: their inaction means catastrophic climate change and/or serious conversations about geoengineering sooner rather than later. Politicians who deploy forward-looking rhetoric about science can’t ignore what the scientific community is in heated agreement about right now. In a few more years, the harsh reality will make it next to impossible for all but the most stubborn FOX News viewer to deny climate change science. But we don’t have years to wait.

Defending Social Security

Most voters don’t reflexively line up with either side in the debate over the role of government. They don’t agree with conservative’s selective devotion to “small government” (or they’re in the large “ideologically conservative, operationally liberal” contingent), nor would they agree with the mythical liberal who wants what the right calls “big government” for its own sake.

Side note: I have yet to come across one of these “government is its own reward” liberals. They’re political Bigfoot. Let me know if you find one and it’s not just David Koch wearing the Bigfoot suit.

Voters want effective government. And that’s precisely what Social Security is. It’s a testament to Social Security’s undeniable success that those who want to needlessly cut it have to resort to saying that a couple of decades from now, after what will at that point be almost a hundred years of success, the intensely popular program will have an easily fixable, relatively small problem. That’s the knock against it.

To my fellow Democrats I would ask a straightforward question: If Social Security isn’t worth defending and truly strengthening, what is? We believe in and advocate for effective government. People want effective government. Social Security is effective government.

If we take part in unnecessary cuts and undermine retirement security despite broad opposition to cuts, when are we going to stand up for anything the right-wing wants to dismantle? If we won’t stand up for what we know to be right (and popular!) — one our party’s defining achievements, which is absolutely essential to retirement security, when exactly are we going to locate our backbone? Much too late, if ever.

I don’t quote him lightly, but the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) is apt here.

“If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.” – Paul Wellstone

K Street’s influence

Conservatives and Republican operatives like to say that campaign finance reform is “unrealistic.” It’s true that getting K Street and Wall Street out of a position from which they can dominate our politics is going to be an epic battle requiring ongoing effort. A movement that can bring about campaign finance and lobbying reform with teeth is key, but it won’t mean the end of the story. This problem will require vigilance long after it’s contained.

But what’s really “unrealistic” is for conservative Republicans to expect to win much without the influence of corporate special interests giving them an assist in elections and legislative battles. They’re on the wrong side of demographic changes, history, and public opinion. Their solution to their problem: make it more difficult for people who are likely to support Democrats to vote (the ongoing GOP voter suppression tour) while making it even easier for K Street and Wall Street to drown out the voices of those who do vote (the Citizens United decision, other right-wing efforts to undo anything that acts as a check on corporate interests’ involvement in elections). This is what a desperate party looks like.

It’s also unrealistic to think that we’ll be able to truly address our major problems without reducing the influence of big money and countering the pull of K Street.

Rick Tyler Needs A History Lesson on the African American Vote

This clip of Rick Tyler of the Gingrich campaign on MSNBC after the Florida GOP primary has been making the rounds. During his appearance, Tyler made outright false claims about the usage of food stamps, giving the impression that President Obama has set some kind of food stamp record and is unnecessarily increasing them. Neither suggestion is true. Not only was Tyler simply wrong on the facts, his entire premise is wrong. A broad range of economists will testify that, along with unemployment insurance, food stamps are the most effective recovery spending. They assist struggling Americans who, being people, need to eat, and the money goes right back into the economy. There’s a reason why farm belt politicians from both parties have championed food stamps: they’re good for rural America on a number of levels.

The story Rush Limbaugh and company like to tell about the president spending lavishly on supposedly African American-centric measures is baseless. According to Census data 49% of food stamp recipients are white, 26% are African American, and 20% are Latino. If there’s any record that it’s in the process of being set here it’s the one for right-wing mendacity.

The food stamps falsehood isn’t the only deceptive part of Tyler’s pitch that shouldn’t go unchecked. Tyler repeated the movement conservative line about the African American vote, a profile in strategic clock starting that, to those who aren’t aware of its complete lack of context, may seem vaguely troubling.

Tyler asserted that 98% of African American vote for Democrats. According to CNN’s 2008 exit poll, 95% of African Americans who voted cast their vote for Barack Obama. Limbaugh-type conservatives use this number to argue that the main driver of African American support for Obama in 2008 was his race. It’s probably not uncommon for a more casual observer to hear the 95% number and think the movement conservatives who echo this line are on to something. 95% may seem high, but when you know the full story it’s actually not surprising or troubling in the least.

Tyler started his clock on election night in 2008. The honest place to start is 1965. That’s the year the Civil Rights Act passed, thanks in large part to the bravery of the civil rights leaders and activists whose work pressured national Democrats to do the right thing. In the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the more progressive Republicans starting becoming Democrats while conservative Southern Democrats, like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, started becoming Republicans. In the following decades the GOP turned to the infamous Southern strategy, which the party, through then-Chairman Ken Mehlman, ended up having to apologize for in July of 2005.

You can draw a straight line from the Civil Rights Act to the present. Few people of any background would support a party or ideology that for decades was explicitly and often virulently opposed to their civil rights; for decades after that fomented a backlash against their civil rights; and in the present day regularly insinuates that the first president who shares their background is inherently less American than his predecessors.

Note that Al Gore and John Kerry also got most of the African American vote. According to exit polls, Gore received 90% of the AA vote in 2000 and John Kerry received 88% of the AA vote in 2004. I guess someone could try to argue that the relatively small increase from around 90% to around 95% is somehow telling, but it really isn’t. 2008 was a great election night for Democrats across the board. After eight years of George W. Bush practically any Democratic candidate had a very good chance of winning the presidency. The Crash of ’08 ensured that the Democratic nominee would win. Run any competent Democrat in that election and they’re going to win and win big among groups that make up the backbone of the Democratic coalition, African Americans being one of them.

On top of all of that was Barack Obama immense political talent and John McCain’s “game change” vice-presidential pick. Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention, though widely seen as well-executed, derided community organizers. The McCain campaign’s rile up the base strategy was predictably going to push African American undecideds toward Obama. Think back to the McCain-Palin rallies of October, at which McCain stood in the middle of the proverbial fevered swamps of Wingnutia. Can anyone claim with a straight face that Steve Schmidt of the McCain campaign was surprised that 95% of African Americans voted for Obama-Biden?

It’s certainly true that our country was long overdue for a minority president. We’re still long overdue for more African American Senators (we currently have none) and Governors (we currently have only one: Democrat Deval Patrick in Massachusetts). The same is true of Latinos and women. If we take more strides toward electoral meritocracy, we’ll see more African Americans, Latinos, and women running for and winning statewide and national office. And yes, the history-making nature of the Obama campaign is part of what made it so inspiring. But the suggestion that his share of the African American vote was significantly more than what you would expect with any capable national Democrat, let alone one with Obama’s skill, isn’t accurate.

And for the record, most Democrats get that slavery, segregation, and discrimination have profound, long-lasting consequences. We’re at our best as the party of a broad working middle class and opportunity for all; a party that celebrates diverse backgrounds. This proud tradition is one of our key strengths, not something to be ashamed of.

Mass Appeal: Elizabeth Warren for Keynote Speaker

Greg Sargent reports on Elizabeth Warren’s post at Blue Mass Group calling out Scott Brown on his opposition to the Buffet Rule. Warren’s argument, and the way she makes it, demonstrates why there is no better choice to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte than the woman who took on and beat Wall Street to establish the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).

Contrast with Romney. Warren, from Romney’s home state, is authentic and resolute. Romney is… well, Mitt Romney (Version 29.5), the politician who has never seen a pair of flip-flops he didn’t want to try on. Warren comes from what she aptly calls “the rugged edge of the middle class.” Romney, to borrow a phrase from the late great Gov. Ann Richards (D-TX), was born on third base but acts like he hit a triple. Warren fights for a strong middle class. Romney feeds off of the destruction of the middle class. Warren wants to end K Street’s stranglehold on Capitol Hill. Romney wants to end Medicare. (You see where I’m going with this.)

Fired up and won over. Warren can energize the Democratic base while speaking directly to understandably frustrated working middle class voters on the fence. Mobilization + persuasion.

Spotlight on women candidates.  Along with Warren, there are other great Dem women running in key Senate races, like Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Mazie Hirono in Hawaii. It’s crucial that they are elected. Warren giving the keynote address will help draw attention to this trend.

Populism’s time, populism’s turn. Aside from memorable speeches from two strong Texas women, Ann Richards in 1988 and Barbara Jordan 1992, recent keynote choices have favored the conservaDem Dudes Caucus: Evan Bayh in 1996, Harold Ford in 2000, Mark Warner in 2008. A healthy dose of populism is long overdue.

Stadium name shutdown. Warren giving the keynote speech at the convention will go a long way toward stopping any media carping about the president giving his nomination acceptance speech at the Bank of America Stadium. “Lead Wall Street reformer Elizabeth Warren is giving the keynote speech at the convention. Next question.”

I anticipate two counter-arguments to Warren for Keynote.

1. Karl Rove will say things about her.

Rove and company will do this no matter who gives the speech. The question comes down to who can energize Democrats and appeal to those who are undecided and disaffected. The answer to that question is Elizabeth Warren. The positives far outweigh the negatives.

The other argument, from those who want to advance someone’s national ambitions, will likely be made in private.

2. Warren is a rising star. Putting her on such a platform in prime time will cause Democrats to see her as one of the faces of the party moving forward.

This argument gets it backwards. Newsflash: Rank-and-file Democrats already see Elizabeth Warren as one of the faces of the party moving forward. She generates a tremendous amount of energy because Democrats and progressives respond to her work and her message. The energy is already there. Let’s tap into it.

Protecting Social Security: Payroll Tax Cut Fight Edition

With the fight over a longer-term payroll tax cut fully underway, and the themes of economic security and tax fairness at the forefront, now is a good time to take a step back and look at just how much Republicans have been getting away with. GOP operatives have expressed confidence about the outcome of this fight. If their confidence was based on a belief that voters agree with them, it would be something to laugh off. On tax fairness in general, the specific payroll tax cut fight, and the directly related fight for Social Security, the GOP is thoroughly beatable. But one of the points the bullish Republicans have made is, uncharacteristically for the reality-averse GOP, not without merit. One Republican insider told National Journal that “Democrats rarely know how to make use of a strong hand.” The GOP insider pinpointed a dynamic that grassroots Dems are all too familiar with.

It’s not that there haven’t been encouraging moments as of late. The payroll tax cut fight is a good access point to the broader debate over fair tax rates — a debate that helps crystallize Republican priorities in the minds of voters. Fewer Democrats are shying away from populist contrasts. This is all good. But the recent movement in the right direction could very well prove to be fleeting. If recent history is any indication, the case for populist contrasts and confrontation will have to be made repeatedly. There are actors inside the nominally Democratic establishment (read: Third Way) whose relevance depends on elected Dems not learning the right lesson. If those hopelessly stuck in their interpretation of the 80’s and 90’s have their way, the recent mini-payroll tax cut victory will amount to little more than a short-term political win based on questionable policy. Those who speak in earnest about restoring a broad middle class have to do away with the notion that clearing low bars is enough to get us there.

The payroll tax/Social Security fight has two fronts. One is making the GOP pay the full political price for being their middle class wrecking ball selves. The other is an intraparty struggle to keep one group of Democrats that is out of step with core Democratic values and the country as a whole from blowing up the core of the party and offering up the rubble to the gods of delusional “centrism.” It’s progressives, populists, and mainstream Democrats vs. those who embrace Social Security cuts.

Note: In an attempt to avoid anything that could be rightly characterized as Monday morning quarterbacking, all of the points made in this post were also made in real time.

Team Blue

2011 wasn’t a good year for Congressional Dems, so the moment Speaker Boehner effectively admitted political defeat after the last payroll tax cut fight must have been a sweet one. If this short-term victory was a confidence builder for leading Dems, or a wake-up call to those who haven’t been willing to engage the GOP in the knock-down drag-out fight that has been going on for years and will continue whether our side finally internalizes it or not, that’s a welcome development. But this isn’t some great victory, and I think Democrats do the party and its goals a tremendous disservice if we tell ourselves that it is.

The skepticism of the payroll tax cut expressed in progressive circles is warranted. Defenders of Social Security are justifiably torn here. The people and organizations looking out for Social Security are the same ones who, for the last three years, have been adamant that the unemployment crisis demanded strong and sustained action. Of course they’re initially sympathetic to the argument that the payroll tax cut is all that is doable right now and at least it’s something. But there is disagreement over whether the payroll tax cut really is the best that can be done and deep skepticism about the efficacy of the employer-side of the payroll tax cut. To be clear, we’re not talking about an assessment that the employer-side cut is less than optimal; we’re talking about an assessment that it’s a dud.

Speaking only as a layman interested in the outcome, ideally I wouldn’t want to see any part of the payroll tax cut taken out of the economy at this time. However, if the employer-side cut is utterly ineffective, that part of the otherwise important payroll tax cut/unemployment insurance extension package isn’t worth further jeopardizing Social Security politically for, especially after the “Grand Bargain” fiasco of 2011.

While the payroll tax cut doesn’t jeopardize Social Security as far as funds go, it does make the program more vulnerable politically by fueling the perception that Social Security contributes to the deficit. And there were better options than the payroll tax cut identified in real time. Namely, the Making Work Pay earned income tax credit, which would be at least as good politically as the payroll tax cut. Making Work Pay might as well be an ongoing policy and election theme for Democrats. Making Work Pay also fits in with the Obama Administration’s desire to elevate ideas Republicans have supported in the past. The counter-argument to going with Making Work Pay was that the right would label it a second stimulus. They did this anyway with the payroll tax cut and every other recovery effort they have opposed (all of them). A key takeaway from this, if it hasn’t been made perfectly clear by now, is that when elected Democrats move toward right-wing Republicans they get little to no credit for doing so, either from the GOP or media outlets addicted to false equivalency. Results trump positioning.

The progressive reluctance to back all of the payroll tax cut comes from a recognition that the language that has been used while arguing for the payroll tax cut is sure to surface whenever the temporary cut comes up for renewal again. If this is temporary, when is it going to end and who will end it?

The reluctance is also informed by recent history. While voters — Democrats, Independents, and Republicans alike — are adamant in their opposition to Social Security cuts, the GOP still sought them, as was to be expected. But the most prominent Democrat, President Obama, was far from a stalwart defender. More people would have been receptive to an argument that the Obama Administration had been sufficiently vigilant about the impact of the payroll tax cut on Social Security’s political future if the president had stood up to the disingenuous rhetorical attacks on the successful program. Instead he joined in. He usually did so in a more measured way than the right, but he repeatedly  misled audiences about Social Security; giving cover to the right-wing/Wall Street goal of cuts that set a precedent for further efforts to unravel the program.

The president’s pursuit of Social Security cuts is not something that can be credibly denied. There is a lot of reporting that establishes that the Obama Administration wanted needless cuts and went to absurd lengths to get them as part of a package. Some combination of Speaker Boehner ultimately refusing to deal, the emergence of the 99% movement, and perhaps the White House realizing that Social Security cuts are irreconcilable with the brand of Democrat that does well in key general election states like Ohio and Wisconsin (as well as the Democratic appeal in Florida) prevented the deal from happening. But the outcome doesn’t erase a troubling reality: needless Social Security cuts were put on a table they never should have been in the first place and were kept there for a long time. The rubicon hasn’t been crossed, but clearly drawn lines have been.

With the more populist Obama back in the general election spotlight, some contend that the Social Security “Grand Bargain” folly should be forgotten about, at least until after November. I think this is a seriously misguided approach. Social Security has determined attackers and it needs determined defenders, cuts are toxic with working class voters the president and down-ticket Dems need, and cuts have the very real potential to fracture the Democratic Party — on top of being wrong and bad politics independent of this.

Social Security is central to Democratic identity. It’s at the core of what the Democratic Party is about and what it accomplishes when it’s at its best. A Democratic Party worthy of its name is committed to protecting and truly strengthening Social Security.

As an example, look what gets top billing in the official “Brought to You By” Democratic Party poster: Social Security.

If Social Security had been cut as part of a Beltway deal, the rhetorical question to the elected Democrats responsible would have been something like this:

Our country hasn’t been in this bad of shape in terms of economic security since the Great Depression. Yet despite this, you pushed through needless cuts to the 75-year plus success story that is Social Security. You did this as part of a deal that you claim addresses a problem. But Social Security didn’t contribute to this problem. And this problem isn’t the most pressing one we face. In fact, these cuts reinforce the austerity hysteria that makes our most pressing problem worse. Considering the overwhelming popularity of Social Security, how is such staggering political malpractice not a sign that you are fine with reducing the Democratic Party to a pathetic shell of what it has been, can be, and should be?

Let’s be clear, the ones who are outside of the mainstream on this are those who support Social Security cuts. In this case, “‘centrist’ wingnut” is not a contradiction in terms.

President Obama appeared to be publicly backing away from cuts last September. More recently, the populist Obama that even his sometimes critics are fans of re-emerged in Osawatomie, Kansas. To his credit, the president utilized recess appointments to send Richard Cordray, the former Democratic Attorney General of Ohio, to head the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), and to ensure that there would be a functioning NLRB (National Labor Relations Board). These are concrete steps taken to rebuild the middle class, which by definition means that Congressional Republicans were going to completely freak out over them. Credit where it’s due. This is all heartening.

Yet after the Kansas speech, the president gave an interview to 60 Minutes in which he again lumped Social Security in with Medicare, instead of talking about the real problem of rising health care costs.

And then there was the president’s State of the Union address:

As I told the Speaker this summer, I’m prepared to make more reforms that rein in the long-term costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and strengthen Social Security, so long as those programs remain a guarantee of security for seniors.

The speech had its good moments, but after considering what the president told Speaker Boehner last Summer, this sure looks like one of its worst. The first seven words are a clear nod to the White House-Boehner “Grand Bargain” deal that cut Social Security and did other awful things like raising the retirement age for Medicare before Boehner walked away at the last minute.

It’s true that the president said “strengthen social security.” Strengthen Social Security is the name of the coalition that is doing a great job of opposing deformative “reforms.” They’re the good guys/ladies. But this language has also been adopted by those who want to cut the program. Rarely will someone come out and admit in plain language that they’re cutting Social Security. They say they’re “strengthening” it or “securing it” or “saving” it. The group Strengthen Social Security means it. Regrettably, the president either doesn’t or he has a much different idea of how to strengthen the program that, much like the Beltway bipartisanship unicorn-spotting expedition of the first three years of this presidency, isn’t going to lead to anywhere good.

The president could state unequivocally that Social Security cuts (like raising the retirement age and the chained CPI scheme that amounts to a benefit cut) would not happen as long as he is president. He could made the kind of case for Social Security that it deserves and we all know the president is capable of. (Of course he would have to mean it.) If the history of this presidency to date is any guide, this isn’t going to happen. In fact, there’s a strong case to make that, when it comes to cutting Social Security, mainstream Democrats have to make the Obama Administration not do it.

Putting Social Security on the chopping block is anathema to operational unity within the Democratic coalition and the progressive movement. Those who pushed this nonsense in the White House, if they were interested in safeguarding the retirement security of all voters and the values of those who voted for them once already and will do so again, would knock it off.  They have more than earned any public criticism and private derision on this topic they’ve received. With that said, it’s important to understand what, as well as who, put Social Security cuts on the table.

Social Security cuts are so stupid on a number of levels that pursuing them gives rise to explanations like the “show rivals” theory — the idea that elected Democrats and elected Republicans agree on most things and the political opposition is just for show. While this theory significantly overstates the problem and envisions as deliberate things that are more subtle, the anger and confusion behind its rise is understandable.  People rightfully want to know why Social Security is something they have to worry about with a Democrat in the White House. But there’s a better answer than “show rivals.

Bubble Vision

How did Social Security cuts get put on the proverbial table in the first place? The Beltway bubble decided to prioritize the budget deficit. Bubble residents wanted something they could pass off as bipartisan, because inside the bubble, Beltway bipartisanship automatically makes something good. Inside the bubble Social Security is seen as relatively low-hanging fruit that can be included in a Beltway “Grand Bargain.” An overwhelming majority of voters are opposed to Social Security cuts (strong opposition to the Democratic “give”). A similarly large majority supports things like the expiration of the Bush tax rates for the most wealthy (strong support for the Republican “give”). But inside the bubble, this Main Street bipartisanship doesn’t register.

Social Security cuts have a small but rabid and influential constituency. Case in point: Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, who funds the assault on Social Security and Medicare. Peterson doesn’t like Social Security and never has. Cutting Social Security is to Peterson what “Obamacare” is to Michele Bachmann.

Peterson is aided by pundits who project their fetishes onto the electorate. David Brooks, who repeats Peterson’s talking points and clamors for cuts, is part of a larger group that likes to claim that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the president would do wonders for his re-election bid if he explicitly endorsed the Social Security cuts put forward by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles of the failed Simpson-Bowles Commission. Brooks isn’t alone. Andrew Sullivan wrote that if the president pushed for the cuts in Simpson-Bowles he would “regain the coalition he won with – and then some.” This is a baseless assertion. What these pundits don’t get or aren’t willing to admit is that what they want to happen to Social Security is wildly out of step with the people who work and vote for Democrats and those who would consider doing so. While these pundits like to think of themselves as standing in contrast to the “left of the left,” their warped view is rejected by progressives and the actual center.

Heaping mindless praise on Simpson-Bowles is all the rage in the bubble. Bubble residents do not seem to know that the only thing the commission produced was the proposal of its two co-chairs — Alan Simpson, the former Republican Senator from the downright tiny and extremely conservative state of Wyoming, and Erskine Bowels, a Wall Street Democrat who made $335,000 in one year at his perch on the board of Morgan Stanley. The co-chairs proposed a bad deal. But what is a raw deal to those outside of the bubble is a Grand Bargain to those inside it, because that’s what the rest of the bubble is saying. The bubble’s residents don’t have to worry about things like retirement security and they apparently have no reference point other than what their fellow inane conventional wisdom-repeating relatively well-off people say.

This insularity went all the way to the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where it enabled nonsensical ideas, both regarding policy substance and political strategy that held sway in the White House. As critics of the White House’s Grand Bargaining have been pointing out for months, the theory behind the “Grand Bargain” was that once it was completed Bill Daley would learn from his trusty CNBC that the Confidence Fairy had magically fixed the economy, which would lead to the president being re-elected. Do you believe in magic? Bill Daley does.

As a bonus, the theory went, the president would become the person who “secured Social Security” — by making it less secure. Apparently a couple of people in the president’s inner circle actually thought this would make for good politics. Up until very recently, you could still catch an adviser on TV bragging about the president’s willingness to do “tough things” on “entitlements.”

Paul Starobin recently reported on Bill Daley’s White House tenure.

It was Daley, with the president’s backing, who reached out to the new House Speaker, John Boehner, in a series of moves all designed to culminate in a grand bargain between Democrats and Republicans on taxes and spending, including entitlement reforms. Daley sat down with Boehner for a get-acquainted, steaks-and-wine dinner at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in downtown D.C. in February, and then arranged for the “golf summit” in June at which Obama and Boehner, joined by Vice President Joe Biden and Ohio’s GOP governor, John Kasich, came together for an 18-hole outing at Andrews Air Force Base.

With the U.S. government’s debt ceiling in danger of being breached, the Obama and Boehner camps got down to hard talks aimed at reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over ten years. Multiple White House aides told me that Daley was the number-one advocate for a bold package including concessions on Democratic sacred cows. On the table were big-ticket items like raising the eligibility age of Medicare. Such a deal, Daley stressed, would boost “market psychology” and “increase profoundly business and consumer confidence” in the economy, as David Lane, his counselor, characterized his views in an interview with me. Others in the White House viewed a deal as a political risk for the president and possibly a policy mistake. But Obama ruled in Daley’s favor.

What else contributed to this unrealistic theory gaining traction with a smart president? According to numerous reports, Peter Orszag, the Administration’s first OMB (Office of Management and Budget) director did a lot to shape the president’s view of the budget. Orszag is one of the lead advocates of cutting Social Security, as seen is the Diamond-Orszag plan. It seems Orszag’s view dovetailed with the president’s search for supposed common ground, even when searching for this ever-elusive ground wasn’t in the interests of a broad middle class or his own political future.

Orszag last August:

Peter R. Orszag, Obama’s former budget director, advocates tripling the size of the payroll tax break — essentially wiping out the payroll tax entirely — and keeping the rate low as long as unemployment remains high.

Orszag’s role shaping the president’s outlook is part of what makes the payroll tax cut disconcerting. To the extent would-be Social Security cutters like Orszag would have factored in that the payroll tax cut undermines Social Security politically, everything they’ve said and written about the program suggests they would see making Social Security more vulnerable as a feature of the payroll tax cut, not a bug.

On The Attack

The conservative attack on Social Security is based on ostensibly exempting current and soon-to-be retirees from the hatchet, inventing a crisis, and convincing younger people that the invented crisis is imminent. Self-described centrists try to cast Social Security as equivalent to the Bush tax rates for the most wealthy so they can pat themselves on the back for going after both. That these self-proclaimed centrists compare an intensely popular program like Social Security and its advocates to a decidedly unpopular right-wing agenda and Grover Norquist says a lot about them.

Both the right and the self-proclaimed center conflate rising health care costs with Medicare and then try to drag Social Security into the conversation about health care costs and Medicare. Both groups pretend the word “cuts” is interchangeable with “reform.” Two of their favorite “reforms” in name only are means-testing and raising the retirement age.

Means-testing Social Security and Medicare appeals to champions of the interests of the most wealthy because it helps the most wealthy claim to be contributing meaningfully; something they’ll do to forestall much more consequential attempts to address grossly unfair tax rates. Means-testing also weakens political support for the programs among the wealthy in general (the people with the most political influence) by moving the programs closer to “welfare” territory. Finally, means-testing Social Security would have to cut into middle class benefits to achieve any real savings because of the administrative cost of said means-testing.

Raising the retirement age stands out in the pack of bad ideas and scams as the worst and most offensive. Its proponents, like Pete Peterson and Chris Christie, point to rising life expectancy since the original Social Security Act passed in 1935. This is highly deceptive. Life expectancy was lower back then because infant mortality rates were higher. But that’s just the beginning of the deception.

EPI:

–Life expectancy has risen more in working-age years than retirement years, which means that to the extent that Americans are living longer, they are also contributing more to Social Security.

–Although overall life expectancy is rising, lower-income groups have seen very little increase in post-65 life expectancy in recent years, and some research suggests that lower-income women may be losing ground.

–Slow wage growth and rising inequality are bigger problems for Social Security than increased life expectancy. Longevity gains for younger generations account for only one-fifth of Social Security’s projected 75-year shortfall, while slow wage growth and rising economic inequality account for more than half the projected shortfall.

The attackers, even the supposedly Very Serious ones, have no problem with getting a little crazy. Indiana’s Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, George W. Bush’s OMB director, likes to say “deficit” and “debt” a lot. This causes the usual suspects to forget his record and fawn all over him. When he isn’t busy saying his two words and responding to fan mail from Mark Halperin, Daniels likes calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme and coming up with new justifications for raising the retirement age, like when he raised the specter of replacement body parts. Yes, we must raise the retirement age because any day now we’re all going to be riding on hoverboards with our seventh pair of legs, while Tweeting, using only our minds, about the glory of Leader of Earth Gingrich as he fundamentally civilizes the Zarulons so they’ll stop interrupting our space honeymoons.

Republicans only care about Social Security to the extent they want to weaken it, privatize it, or end it without having to pay the political price. This is how privatizing Social Security becomes “personalizing” it. Paul Ryan, an Ayn Rand acolyte, isn’t hellbent on fulfilling his dream of phasing out Social Security, he’s just wishing for “reform.” Sharron Angle wanted Social Security eliminated. Then she realized language like that wouldn’t play well in a general election and discovered a way to “save Social Security” (spoiler alert: privatized). Mitch Daniels isn’t raising the retirement age, he’s just pre-celebrating your new replacement body parts.

Attacks on Social Security are not difficult to respond to.

How We Win

    • Stand up for Social Security. It works. We’re talking about an undeniably successful American institution that is vital to retirement security and has no business in a discussion about a problem it did not cause. Ideas like raising the retirement age constitute yet another raid on the middle class. Strongly oppose them and promise to fight the Wall Street-bankrolled attacks on Social Security at every turn.
    • Underscore GOP priorities When Republicans lie about Social Security we have a built-in response that puts them on the defensive and maximizes their political liability. They oppose making working pay, a surtax on incomes over a million dollars, and a tax on Wall Street transactions. One of their top priorities is permanently extending the Bush tax cuts for the most wealthy. The debate over tax rates — who is paying what, what’s fair, and what should should be rewarded, is something Democrats and progressives shouldn’t hesitate to engage in. When Republicans, or anyone else for that matter, come after Social Security, highlight what they’re doing and who they’re doing it for.
    • Do what works. It’s important to keep ideas that can spur the kind of recovery we need in the conversation, even though they may seem out of reach at the moment. These ideas include getting to work on badly needed infrastructure projects and keeping states from laying off police officers, firefighters, and teachers and doing other things that contract the economy. Let’s not mistake the brand of defeatism that avoids the kind of policy that we know works with pragmatism. The best answer to any allegation from the right is effective policy. They’re going to call us every name in the book regardless of what we do. Their attacks only resonate if we don’t get results.

Remember, Social Security has committed enemies — a fringe group, but a high-powered one with a ridiculously outsized voice in our nation’s capital. Social Security needs committed supporters who will fight every disingenuous attack on it and think ahead.

To that end, here are important takes from three staunch defenders of Social Security.

Joan McCarter:

[H]ere’s a suggestion to combat (Republicans claiming to be the true defenders of Social Security) and to actually strengthen Social Security in the long run. Democrats should embrace this newfound concern among Republicans for the program, and up the ante by coupling the payroll tax holiday with lifting the payroll tax cap. Right now, income over $110,000 is exempt from the payroll tax. Do away with that cap, and you help make sure that the lowered contributions from people who will never have more than $110,000 in income in a year don’t get hit now. It’s a win-win.

Robert Kuttner:

Subsidizing Social Security with general revenue is good policy. As long as the system is substantially financed by payroll taxes, the benefit still feels earned.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Making up the Social Security gap with a tax on millionaires is a double win. It makes the tax system more progressive, and it starkly poses alternatives in a way that plays to progressive strengths.

Dean Baker:

There is no reason to think that once cuts were put in place that the elites won’t come back for more. After all, those of us who remember the 2000 presidential race know that any improvement in the budget situation is an argument for more tax cuts. And tax cuts will inevitably mean that we will have more pressure in the future for budget cuts.

The other important part of the argument for delay is the demographic fact that we hear repeated endlessly. The country is aging. The huge baby boom cohort is reaching the eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare.

With older people voting in much higher ratios than young people, there are not likely to be many politicians anxious to support cuts to the programs they depend upon. And, contrary to the stories of the Washington elite, the support of seniors for these programs is not driven by greed. It is driven by the fact that they recognize the importance of these programs in their own lives. They want to ensure that their children and grandchildren will enjoy the same security in their own age.

The moral of this story is that we should celebrate the work of hundreds of thousands of people across the country who have blocked the Washington elite to cut Social Security and Medicare. And remember, the future is on our side.