It's time to think the unthinkable: The leader of the Democratic Party is about to submit a budget which cuts Social Security benefits. Party officials are reportedly promoting candidates with no track record on key issues and no apparent interest in politics.
And Republicans are planning another double-cross, an undertaking for which they have demonstrated both talent and enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, a petition with more than two million signatures will be presented to the White House tomorrow at a rally in Lafayette Square. And yet, despite this massive outpouring of public sentiment, and despite widespread public support for Social Security, the Democrats may be setting themselves up for a 2014 Congressional race in which they're portrayed as the "anti-Social Security party."
Impossible? No. Remember when Republicans re-took the House in 2010 after their losses in 2006 and 2008? Now that was impossible.
Democrats have long considered Social Security their signature program. They've repeatedly defended it from Republican attempts to gut or privatize it. Democratic activists have told me privately that, no matter what happens this year, it 'wouldn't be fair' to characterize Democrats as Social Security cutters or the relentlessly hostile Republicans as its defenders.
Fair? Excuse me, I thought we were talking about politics. And if we're being completely fair, it's not altogether unreasonable to think of someone who voted to cut Social Security benefits as ... well, as someone who voted to cut Social Security benefits.
There's been extensive coverage of the president's planned chained-CPI cuts. Now comes this story in the Washington Post, about the party's plan to brand its candidates as blank slates:
The best way to defeat the conservative, ideologically driven GOP, Democrats say, is to field non-ideological 'problem solvers' who can profit from the fed-up-with-partisanship mood of some suburban areas. These districts will offer some of the few competitive House campaigns in the country.
We're told that party leaders want to play into what they see as the "fed-up-with-partisanship mood of some suburban areas."
The Post article features Kevin Strouse, hand-picked by party leaders to contest a Congressional seat in Pennsylvania. We're told that party officials think Strouse is "exactly the kind of candidate who can help them retake the House next year."
"He's a smart, young former Army Ranger," writes the Post, "good qualities for any aspiring politician. But what party leaders really like is that Strouse doesn't have particularly strong views on the country's hottest issues."
Strouse told the Post that Democratic officials asked him very little about politics or policy and said they focused on his background instead. "They've just liked the bio," said Strouse. Politics may be the only profession in the world where a lack of experience, coupled with what seems to be complete disinterest in the job, is considered an asset.
As a former Army and CIA officer, we're told, Strouse likes to describe himself as someone who can "solve problems" and who "got the job done." But which job, exactly?
Polls do show that voters are frustrated with Washington's ability to "get things done." But which "things"? The polling's equally unequivocal on that score: Voters want government to create jobs. They want government to fix the economy. And, by overwhelming majorities, they don't want government to enact the chained CPI benefit cut to Social Security.
The president understood that. His reelection campaign focused heavily on populist themes -- themes he articulated brilliantly, regardless of his intentions. Will we see the same level of talent and expertise from the party's new neophyte politicians?
"Certainly I have a lot of research to do," said Strouse.
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The Post profiled other blank-slate candidates, including Gwen Graham, daughter of veteran Democratic politician Bob Graham. Her only government experience seems to have been providing legal advice to the local school district.
We're told that Graham's campaign presents her as a "consensus builder" with the "skills to solve complicated problems."
That's campaign-speak for "lacks qualifications."
Follow the Money
Then there's this: "Without a presidential contest to compete with," writes the Post, "Democrats also believe liberal mega-donors will open their wallets more generously (a PAC) supporting House Democrats."
Not if Democrats have just voted cut Social Security, they won't.
Turning Down the Base
While Republicans mobilize their base with "conservative, ideologically driven" candidates, Democrats think they can retake the House in an off-year election by fielding colorless, ideology-free candidates. If nothing else, that would certainly amplify the disillusionment of young people, minorities, and other core Democratic voters in a post-chained-CPI world.
Seniors would already be long gone, if the polls are any indication.
Who thought of this strategy again?
Filling in the Blanks
Some Democratic leaders apparently believe that their ideal candidate is a vacuum, a cipher, a human "to let" sign who can become the repository for a voter's -- or a contributor's -- technocratic daydreams. The architect of this strategy appears to be Rep. Steve Israel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
There's a problem with Israel's strategy: The President of the United States, the head of the Democratic Party, is about to formally propose cuts to Social Security -- cuts which are opposed by 69 percent of senior voters, who vote disproportionately in off-year elections -- and are also opposed by majorities or pluralities of voters across the political spectrum.
If Democrats in Congress back their president's measure in significant numbers, it will make their re-election fights much tougher. It will also allow Republicans to fill in the human blank spaces Israel and the DCCC are putting up for office. How would they go about doing that?
Memories Are Made of This
We already know. In 2010 they capitalized on Obama's budgetary wafflings over Medicare and Social Security by creating a "Seniors' Bill of Rights" and running to Democrats' left on these issues. Only five years after the GOP's wildly unpopular attempt to privatize the program, Obama was less trusted that George W. Bush on Social Security - and Democrats had squandered their 25-point lead on the issue.
Rep. Israel and his fellow party officials seem to think that they can win by presenting candidates like Strouse, Eldridge, and Graham as if they were protagonists in a political version of Total Recall, rocketed onto a political planet without known biographies or histories.
The problem is that the Republicans will write their histories for them. Party leaders won't "like the bios" coming out of GOP Headquarters and Fox News (if those two names aren't a redundancy). Candidates with no records, and no political convictions, will have them provided to them.
"Want to know what Strouse stands for?" they'll ask. "Look at his party's record on Social Security."
"Gwen Graham can solve 'complicated problems,'" the campaign ads will say, "like cutting your benefits."
We're told that Israel is modeling his approach on that of Rahm Emanuel. The Post repeats the common error of crediting Emanuel with the Democrats' 2006 victory, which many non-partisan observers attribute instead to Howard Dean's shrewd "50-state strategy." But Emanuel had more powerful friends and better friends, and he emerged the victor after a bitter internecine battle with Dean.
We all know history is written by the victors.
One for the Books
Social Security can only be cut if Republicans agree to it, and they've wanted these cuts for years. They'd have to agree to a deal, then turn around and campaign against it. They wouldn't be that underhanded, would they?
That was a rhetorical question.
The betrayal's already started, before the deal's even done. Last month Republican Senator Lamar Alexander was quoted as saying "If the history books were written today, we would remember President Obama for the sequester" -- that brutal set of pre-packaged austerity cuts that were jointly agreed upon both parties.
It's grossly unfair to blame one side for an austerity package they both accepted. It's also smart politics.
Alexander also fulminated about "this president's unwillingness to confront what most people believe is the single biggest issue facing our country," which he described as "the out-of-control costs of mandatory entitlement spending in the federal budget, led by Medicare."
Now the president's offering Republicans what Alexander and the others exactly what they want: cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Are they actually treacherous enough to use that against him and his party?
That was another rhetorical question.
The president and his party don't need to worry about Alexander's threat. They won't be remembered for the sequester. But if the chained CPI becomes law, they may well be remembered for cutting Social Security.
If so, they'll pay for it where it hurts most: at the polls -- not to mention their consciences.