White House messaging on the shutdown (and debt ceiling threats) has been nearly pitch-perfect. Republicans, on the other hand, have stumbled and struggled and are paying for it in the polls. Now the GOP's trying to solve the problem it has created for itself by offering the Administration something they both seem to want: Social Security cuts, and perhaps benefit reductions to Medicare as well.
They're already floating the idea publicly. An article in Politico asks, "Is a grand bargain the only way out?" A "close Boehner ally," Rep. Steve Stivers, is quoted as saying "the only way for everybody to find an acceptable long-term solution is a big negotiation of everything that includes something on entitlements, tax reform, something on a spending level and wrap it in one box."
"Something on entitlements" is Washington-speak for cutting Social Security and Medicare. In addition to tax "reform," possible deal points mentioned in Politico include Medicare means-testing (a benefit cut), the "chained CPI" (a benefit cut), and an increase in the current retirement age (whether to Medicare, Social Security, or both, isn't specified - but either would be a cut.)
Democrats are understandably troubled by the ongoing shutdown. But here are eight reasons why this kind of so-called "Grand Bargain" is a very bad idea:
1. If you reward hostage-taking, there will be more of it.
That's been borne out by events of the last several years. The President's framing this time around has been strong and effective. (I particularly like today's comment to Republicans in Congress: "You have already been given the opportunity to serve. The American people aren't in the mood to give you a goodie bag to go with it.")
Concessions on core issues like Social Security and Medicare, on the other hand, would make him look weak and indecisive. They would certainly provoke more crises, as illustrated by recent comments from Rep. Paul Ryan. Ryan, who's been selected as one of the GOP's lead negotiators, was asked if he believed the President when he said he won't negotiate over the debt ceiling (the next "hostage crisis"):
Past deals got us to this point. Capitulating to Republican threats would only encourage more of them, especially now that the President has pledged not to negotiate over the debt ceiling.
"Oh, nobody believes that. Nobody believes that. He himself negotiated Bowles Simpson on the debt limit with Democrats. That was Kent Conrad's requirement. He himself negotiated the Budget Control Act with he debt limit ... I see this time as no different and I believe he does too. I think most people believe he's just posturing for now."
2. As Napoleon once said, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."
"Approval rating for Congress sinks to all-time low," says the headline. CNN has just reported the lowest Congressional ratings since it began polling: 10 percent approval, 87 percent disapproval.
The Republican-friendly polling firm Rasmussen is one of many organizations tracking the GOP's self-immolation. Though Rasmussen's figures skew Republican, they show that voters are increasingly leaning Democratic as the House rolls out its shutdown strategy - 42 percent to 38 percent, as of the last poll.
Rasmussen data also shows support for the shutdown plunging from 53 percent to 45 percent, and as far as we know, they were the only firm to ever show majority approval for it. Quinnipiac, an independent pollster, found that an overwhelming 72 percent of voters oppose the shutdown, while only 34 percent approve.
3. The Democratic base will go from fired up to fed up.
One of the key factors driving election victories is turnout. A "Grand Bargain" would alienate and anger the Democratic base, which is key to turnout.
Forty-one organizations, representing millions of members, recently signed a letter opposing hostage-like budget negotiations. The letter, which specifically opposes the laundry list of "tax reform" and "entitlement cuts" floated by Republicans, reads like a Who's Who of the Democratic base: Unions. Community activists. Environmental and education groups. Liberal religionists.
Polls show that Democrats, including youth voters, strongly oppose cuts to Social Security or Medicare. An alienated and disaffected base could lead to widespread Democratic losses in the 2014 election.
4. It could divide Democrats in Congress.
Forty-four Democratic House members signed the "Grayson/Takano letter" stating that "we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits -- including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need."
106 House Democrats signed a letter by Rep. Jan Schakowsky which declares their "vigorous opposition" to Medicare or Medicaid cuts and says "we remain deeply opposed to proposals to reduce Social Security benefits through use of the chained CPI to calculate cost-of-living adjustments."
Rep. Keith Ellison held a press conference with 20 other members of Congress to oppose the "chained CPI" and other benefit reductions. (This coverage of the event, while otherwise good, repeats a common mistake by stating that "while no Social Security recipient would see a cut in their benefits, their checks would not grow at the current rate." When factoring in the effects of inflation, it is a cut in benefits.)
A number of Hill Democrats would oppose a "Grand Bargain" even if the President were behind it. The party would be bitterly split, and defectors could force the President into an untenable situation in which he's forced to rely on Tea Party Republicans to get a bill passed.
5. The American people will hate the deal.
Americans dislike the shutdown, but they would hate a Grand Bargain. Poll after poll has shown that Americans reject the "chained CPI" and other benefit cuts by large majorities, including a majority of Republicans (and, in some cases, of Tea Party members).
There is no reason for the President and Hill Democrats to strike a deal which the American people oppose, except to rescue their opponents from a crisis of their own creation - and to hurt themselves politically in the process.
6. A "Grand Bargain" will harm the President and his party politically.
CNN's polling data show President Obama's approval at a less-than-desirable 44 percent, but his greatest strength is still the impression voters have of him personally. CNN's Polling Director says "a 51 percent majority (is) still saying that he has the personality and leadership qualities a president should have."
A "Grand Bargain" will hurt that image, leaving the impression that the President is a weak leader whose talk isn't backed up by action. The impact will be made worse by the President's pledge not to negotiate over the debt ceiling, since Republicans are now combining the two issues.
That could have a serious impact on Obama's ability to govern for the remainder of his term, and could trigger a series of crises which make it impossible for him to set the national agenda. That would harm other Democrats' political fortunes and potentially cast a shadow on Obama's legacy.
What's more, the deal itself will be extremely unpopular, undermining Democrats' political prospects.
7. Democrats have already given the GOP too much - and giving them more cuts will hurt the economy.
Democrats have already rewarded the GOP's threats, by agreeing to give Republicans the additional spending reductions they had been demanding. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said as much: ""We'll take your number to keep government open. Give us a chance to vote for it."
"My friend John Boehner cannot take 'yes' for an answer," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
That "Yes" is a green light for more of the economically unsound spending cuts that have already hurt the economy. Our recovery has, by and large, only benefited the wealthiest of Americans. It remains fragile, and it will take spending to bring relief to millions of Americans who are unemployed, under-employed, or facing stagnating wages.
We should be spending more, not less, than agreed upon in previous deals. Even if Democrats feel they can't get more, they should be making the case for it - not undermining that case with a whole new set of cuts.
8. Social Security is a stand-alone program; it doesn't belong in deficit talks.
If this has been said once - by us and many others, include the Strengthen Social Security campaign - it's been said a million times: Social Security is an earned benefit, funded by contributions from employees and employers, and it's forbidden by law from adding to the deficit.
It shouldn't even be discussed in these kinds of budget talks. But then, neither does Obamacare. The difference is that Democrats are refusing to negotiate over Obamacare during this process.
They should adopt the same position toward Social Security and Medicare.
On Thursday the shutdown hit the stock market pretty hard. John Boehner started talking about ending the standoff the same day. Coincidence? We report, you decide.
The shutdown was a disastrous move, and nothing we've said should be misinterpreted as suggested that it's acceptable. It must end, and as soon as possible. But the solution isn't to replace one disaster with another by sacrificing the financial security of American seniors.