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Mike Lux

Mike Lux

Destroying the Democratic Party to "Save" It

Posted: 03/28/11 11:42 AM ET

Third Way released a brand new memo on how the Democratic Party's only hope for the 2012 election is to cut the programs for the broad middle class that are their most popular legacy and the cornerstone of their brand: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It is an interesting strategy based on this reasoning:

  • The deficit will be the key defining issue in 2012
  • Voters want to do something about it
  • Republicans are winning on the deficit issue
  • Democrats can't win an election anymore by defending Social Security and Medicare
  • The public holds "nuanced" views on the issue of whether to cut Social Security and Medicare

Alongside these political arguments, naturally, they restate their long-held policy argument that cutting these benefits is the right thing -- indeed the "progressive" thing -- to do. And after making these points, they then do a tutorial for those Democrats who want to follow their lead as to how to talk about making these cuts, which leads with the exact same line the Republicans are using, which is that only by cutting these programs will we be able to preserve them for the long run. (Third Way's talking points on how to sell these cuts to voters -- i.e. we are making these cuts to "ensure that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will always be there for those who need it" -- actually remind one how popular these programs actually are.) They then go into the Pete Peterson rhetoric about all the new retirees overwhelming the system, tell people to emphasize that these are "small adjustments, not major sacrifice," and make it clear that "Washington must do its share." They emphasize that this must be "bipartisan from start to finish."

It is an interesting argument given how strong and overwhelming the polling is, and always has been, to not mess with Social Security and Medicare. For an organization that spends so much time focusing on polling data and making political arguments based on it, this can only mean one thing: they really, really want to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. I mean I knew they did already, given their January policy memo on doing just that; despite acknowledging that the future shortfall of Social Security could easily be fixed by lifting the payroll tax cap for wealthier people, Third Way preferred cutting benefits. But rather than speculating as to why they want to do this, even though the average senior citizen gets just $14,000 a year from Social Security, let's analyze the political arguments they are making on their own merit:

1. If this election is about deficits, Democrats will lose. Elections are definitional, and if the narrative of this one is about how government is too big and needs to be cut, the Republicans will win that argument. Democrats just don't get much credit for being better at cutting deficits, even though they tend to be. Jimmy Carter was far better at cutting the deficit than Ford or Nixon had been before him, or than Reagan was after him, but it didn't matter. Reagan, Bush 1, and Bush 2 all exploded the deficit; Clinton created a surplus. Guess which party gets the blame for being the party of big government and big deficits? The facts don't matter: whenever voters are focused on deficits and cutting the size of government, Republicans win.

If this election becomes about which party is better at winning/investing in the future, as Obama is trying to make it, Democrats will win. If it becomes about who is fighting harder for jobs and the hard-pressed middle class, as us progressive populists prefer, Democrats win. But if it is just about which party is better at slashing the deficit and shrinking the size of government, Republicans will win that argument hands down -- they always do and always will. That's not to say Democrats don't need to have a credible argument about how their plan will cut the deficit; they certainly do. That's why progressive Democrats like me have been pushing so hard for ending corporate subsidies, taxing the big banks on Wall Street, cutting wasteful defense spending, reforming government contracting, and in general taking on the wealthy special interests that waste government money. But if the election's narrative is mainly about cutting the deficit, the only question will be about how big the Democratic losses are.

Third Way argues that we have no choice, that voters care about deficits more than just about anything else (they do acknowledge that they care about jobs, but say that since not much can be done about that in the short term, that will be a wash anyway.) But all voters have been hearing about from the Republicans is deficits, and if the Democrats continue to listen to Third Way's advice, that's all they will hear about from Democrats too. If Democrats lay out a strong case for the future, and show how they will fight for jobs and the middle class, this election might actually be on Democrats' turf, not Republicans.

2. You know what the two biggest Republican advertising expenditures were about in 2010? Attacks on Democrats for government bailouts for the bankers, and attacks on Democrats for paying for health care reform through cuts in Medicare. As distorted as these ads were (TARP was the Bush administration's idea, and the Medicare dollars being cut mainly involved a wasteful insurance company subsidy), they were effective because populist middle-class swing voters hated the idea of helping Wall Street while cutting Medicare. And when George W. Bush wanted to privatize Social Security, it stopped his political momentum dead in its tracks after the big Republican victory in the 2004 election. My friends at Third Way claim the whole privatization thing didn't really hurt the Republicans very much, but any unbiased Democratic strategist is going to have to beg to differ. Third Way's argument is that is that in the last three elections, Democrats didn't do all that well in the elections with seniors in spite of Bush's privatization plan, but there are a number of things wrong with that line of reasoning.

First, it isn't hard to figure out why the privatization debate didn't have any impact on the 2008 and 2010 elections: it wasn't being talked about much by anyone. Those elections were about the economic crisis and how you felt about Barack Obama, period, end of story. To wonder why Bush's privatization plan wasn't impacting the senior vote in the last two elections doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out.

Second, the whole argument is designed to be misleading: as a group, senior citizens have been trending more and more Republican in recent elections for quite a while now, which anyone who studies polling trends knows. Seniors are much whiter than younger generations, for one thing, which makes them more Republican than other more racially diverse generations. They are much more likely to be churchgoing Christians, which is a more Republican demographic. They have much more traditional values on things like gay rights and immigration than younger voters. And they came of political age in the backlash years: the late '60s and '70s, when politicians like Nixon and Reagan were successfully scaring traditional middle-class whites with tales of welfare queens and acid dropping, abortion getting hippies. Seniors have not been a Democratic leaning demographic group since the generation that came of age in the FDR years mostly passed away. The fact that this generation of voters went 50-50 for Democrats in 2006 is actually a testament to how powerful the Social Security issue is.

One final point here: Third Way's implication in this argument is that seniors are the only ones who care about Social Security and Medicare. That is simply not the case. People in their 40s and 50s beginning to look forward to their retirement but not having as much in the way of pensions or savings as their parents did are counting on Social Security and Medicare being there for them. Younger generations in general are taking care of older parents and grandparents, and know how much they depend on those programs. These are universally supported and heavily valued programs for middle and working class voters of all ages.

3. After making all these flawed political arguments, Third Way turns back to policy, arguing as they have in the past that, in fact, cutting these programs is the right -- the progressive -- thing to do. Their point is that entitlements are crowding out spending on the most important things for our future, things like "innovation, children's health, education, pure research, teen pregnancy prevention, space exploration, medical research, infrastructure, school lunches, and the arts and humanities." Now if I thought for a minute that all those worthy programs would be getting extra money out of a fair bipartisan deal on the budget if progressives opened up to a few very modest cuts in Social Security and Medicare targeted to those who needed it the least, that might be worth discussing. But we all know that is not what is happening here. What is being discussed instead is slashes to all those programs, plus cuts in benefits to seniors, while not doing anything to raise money from all those sources that actually caused the federal deficit to explode, and are still gorging themselves at the government trough: defense contractors, wealthy agribusiness conglomerates, multinational companies getting tax breaks to invest overseas, Wall Street bankers, and millionaires whose taxes got cut dramatically by Bush 10 years ago.

Look, rather than do business with this group of extremist right wingers in the House Republican caucus on something as fundamental to the Democratic Party's identity, to middle-class Americans, and to swing voters as Social Security and Medicare, why not work to refocus the political conversation on other things that matter to them: creating good paying manufacturing jobs, shoring up public education, rebuilding our infrastructure, getting our health care and energy costs under control, and making sure middle-class homeowners get help by holding Wall Street banks accountable? Wouldn't that make more political sense than negotiating benefit cuts for seniors who are getting $14,000 a year from Social Security, or making them pay more for their Medicare coverage? The answer is yes, unless your political obsession is to be in the D.C. "center" by making those cuts. Arguing that Democrats' only political salvation is to anger swing senior citizen voters and their base in order to cut a deal with Republicans on the deficit only makes sense if you think that the swing voters who determine elections spend all their time at Georgetown cocktail parties. Let's not destroy the Democratic Party coalition in order to try and save it. It won't work politically, and it is bad policy.