If you're an 85-year-old lady (or man) living on $14,000 a year in Social Security, having your benefits cut by roughly $1,000 a year could mean choosing between paying for food or paying for medicine. In some cases it could mean the difference between life and death.
But that's apparently what President Obama is prepared to offer up in negotiations with Speaker John Boehner and the House Republicans to get a deal which avoids the fiscal bunny slope. (Stop calling it a fiscal "cliff" -- no one dies on January 2nd if taxes initially go up on everyone and a trillion dollars in spending cuts over 10 years initially go into effect. Problems only occur if within a few months Congress doesn't retroactively cut taxes on the middle class and reduce the spending cuts, in which case reduced demand could then trigger a recession.)
The Republicans' condition for letting Bush tax rate cuts on the wealthiest Americans expire is that Obama and the Democrats cut Social Security or Medicare benefits for some of the poorest and most vulnerable Americans. If Republicans are going to violate their "no new taxes ever" pledge to Grover Norquist, then Obama must violate his pledge to voters to protect social insurance. A scalp for a scalp.
Inside the beltway pundits might cheer Obama's "courage" if he abandons his campaign supporters and sells out the most vulnerable Americans.
But if the "chained CPI" is enacted -- which is simply a clever accountant's way to cut Social Security benefits without saying so -- a bunch of old people will hang by that chain from the neck until dead.
A scalp for a scalp. But all scalps aren't equal.
It would be no great sacrifice for couples making between $250,000-$400,000 a year to pay up to $5,000 a year more in taxes.
But losing $1,000 a year is a major sacrifice to an 85-year-old living mostly on Social Security.
Yet this is the "balanced approach" to deficit reduction that Obama is proposing as a "compromise" with Republicans.
It also throws the credibility of Democrats under the bus. Obama and the Democrats just won the election promising to protect Social Security and Medicare and end the Bush tax cuts for everyone making over $250,000. If Obama has a mandate for anything, it's this. Why should voters believe Democrats in the future if Obama, with support from Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats, gives away his mandate? And why should grassroots Democrats work their butts off to elect Democrats again if within weeks of victory they sell out the fundamental principles on which they ran?
For a few weeks after the elections, Obama seemed to have grown a pair. Now it seems they're as tiny as they've always been. Obama negotiates with Republicans by negotiating against himself and pre-maturely caves on principles. (Click here to see the sickly satiric Tumbler on Obama's weak negotiating strategy. Read it and weep.)
The best hope is that Boehner and the House Republicans are dumb enough to reject Obama's too generous offer, Obama develops some cojones and takes benefit cuts off the negotiating table once and for all.
Going over the fiscal bunny slope isn't the end of the world. The stock market would probably tank when it reopens on January 2, much as it did when Congress initially refused to pass TARP in 2008, scaring Congress into passing TARP within a few days. The same is likely to happen if we go over the fiscal bunny slope.
Obama's negotiating hand would become vastly stronger. With the stock market tanking , CEOs screaming, and polls showing overwhelming support for protecting Social Security and Medicare and increasing taxes on the wealthy, it's likely that within a few days Congress would restore the tax cuts on the middle class without cutting Social Security benefits. Obama might have to make some compromises to seal a deal -- particularly if he also wants an extension of unemployment benefits and a little bit of extra infrastructure spending -- but if he's willing to hang tough, he won't have to sell out the basic principles on which he was elected.
So why is Obama prematurely negotiating away Social Security benefits and modest tax increases for the modestly wealthy? Is that just who he is? Does he clamor for the praise of the beltway punditry and Wall Street aristocracy who would cheer his "courage" for making a not very grand bargain that hurts the most vulnerable Americans?
If so, there may be some old ladies whose lives will be sacrificed on the altar of a not-so-grand bargain.
POSTSCRIPT: To sign a petition by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee holding Democrats who accept benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid accountable, click here.
Or to sign another petition opposing benefit cuts from the Campaign for America's Future, click here.