Republicans and the "Left" Agree: Defending Social Security Is a Political Winner

08/12/2010 01:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Here are two numbers that should warm the heart of anyone who wants to end sectarian bickering and build a bipartisan consensus for change:

68% of likely voters polled believe that we should not cut Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit.

60% of Republicans agree.

These figures are from a new poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner on behalf of the Campaign for America's Future and DemocracyCorps, with support from They tell us that the Democrats have a winning issue for November's elections. All they have to do is strongly reaffirm the President's campaign pledges for Social Security.

As Robert Borosage explains, the poll shows overwhelming support for a progressive political agenda not unlike the one described by President Obama last year as a "New Foundation" for growth. There are those who have suggested that the Democrats should downplay progressive policies, because only 20% of people polled describe themselves as "liberals." But these numbers show that there's overwhelming support, often even among Republicans, for policies that are typically labelled "progressive." It turns out that the new political truism is correct: When it comes to good economic policy, the old labels of "left" and "right" don't apply.

We'll focus on Social Security here (see the Borosage piece for a broader discussion of the poll's implications). A recent AARP poll echoed Greenberg's findings: Voters strongly oppose Social Security cuts, and all segments (including younger voters) would rather pay more in taxes to protect their benefits. Democrats are sending a decidedly mixed message on this hot-button issue, and these poll findings show them a way forward. If the President reiterates his campaign promises -- lift the payroll tax cap, with no benefit cuts -- and if House and Senate candidates do the same, that could put them on the road to political recovery.

Voters across the board believe that Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts should not be used to balance the budget. 65% of voters polled support lifting the cap on Social Security payroll taxes (which currently apply to the first $106,000+ of income) rather than cutting benefits, while an equal number (65%) oppose increasing the Medicare eligibility age for 65 to 67.

Voters also oppose increasing the Social Security retirement age, yet John Boehner floated the idea of raising it to 70. And he's not the only Republican on the anti-Social Security warpath: Rep. Paul Ryan's alternative economic plan would slash benefits from 16% to 28% long-term, while Dick Armey and a host of other Republicans are pushing for privatization plans that would cut guaranteed benefits.

You'd think this would be a winning issue for Democrats. Nancy Pelosi apparently agrees, since House Dems have made Social Security a core campaign theme for House Dems this year. The GOP assault on Social Security may help explain why, despite a terrible economy and the anti-incumbent trend for off-year elections, the Republicans aren't getting much traction with voters. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that, in Ezra Klein's words, "voters don't like anyone." Their enthusiasm for both parties is low. They disapprove of the President by 48% to 47%, but -- in an intriguing finding -- 58% say he's doing about as well as expected and 12% say he's doing better than expected.

The implication of the NBC/WSJ poll is that voters don't believe that anybody in Washington is representing them. That's understandable: The Greenberg poll shows widespread hostility toward Social Security benefit cuts, yet virtually everybody in one party wants to cut them while the other party is sending mixed messages.

Speaker Pelosi has been trying to pull her party in the right direction. She made a good statement when the annual Trustees Report was released, and her comments at Netroots Nation were powerful and effective: "When you talk about reducing the deficit and Social Security, you're talking about apples and oranges." Yet her statement last month on the topic seemed a bit more ambiguous: "We remain dedicated, in FDR's words, to providing 'some measure of protection' to our workers for the long term."

And, at the same time, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has been strenuously undercutting the Speaker's position on this issue. He's been saying things like "everything needs to be on the table" in Social Security discussions. Raising the eligibility age is a benefit reduction -- as Dean Baker explains, raising the retirement age to 70 would be a 15% benefit cut. Yet Hoyer continues to express sympathy for the idea, and has even goes so far as to express openness to privatizing the plan (which would have left many seniors destitute if Bush had succeeded in implementing it in 2005).

The Greenberg poll suggests that beleaguered Congressional Democrats would benefit from defending Social Security, and in Shermanesque terms. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Chair of the Social Security Subcommittee, offers a good example of how it can be done. "Even a phased-in adjustment in the age would change the terms of the deal," says Pomeroy. "That is completely unacceptable... it would be a breach of faith with 53 million present ... recipients and tens of millions to follow." That message will resonate strongly with Congressional voters this fall -- including Republicans and independents. More Dems should follow Pomeroy's lead.

The President's has an ambiguity problem on this issue, too. His Deficit Commission has become a political liability for him, since its chairs persist in sending the signal that Social Security cuts are on the table for them -- and therefore implicitly for the President. Even more "moderate" Commission members are stoking fears about the program while taking Candidate Obama's preferred solution -- raising the tax cap -- off the table.

The President himself was explicit about his intentions for Social Security during the campaign. He called for lifting the cap on payroll taxes, which would solve Social Security's (relatively minor) financial problems for the foreseeable future, and explicitly rejected either benefit cuts or raising the retirement age. These new poll results show he got it exactly right.

Social Security offers an opportunity for Democrats to persuade swing voters while at the same time reassuring and pleasing their base. Robert Gibbs' "professional left" controversy led to him to make the comment, presumably on behalf of the White House, that liberals in Obama's base will show up to vote in 2010. But will they? While Democrats still approve of the President by a vast majority, Gallup's tracking polls for the last nine months show him slipping from a high point of 87% to 80%, a 7-point drop. Approval among self-described liberals, a core Obama constituency, has slipped from a high of 80% to the current 72%. 71% of Democrats oppose raising the retirement age to 70, while 65% want to see the payroll cap raised - and the vast majority of those who hold these opinions feel "strongly" about it.

Imagine: Politicians can energize and reinforce their base, while at the same time attracting indepentents and persuadable members of the other party -- using the same issue. It's like a gift from the gods. All it takes to accept that gift is firmness and clarity.

Senate Democrats met recently to reinforce their campaign strategy against the Republicans: "Contrast, contrast, contrast." They were handed pocket cards that highlighted their talking points: "Democrats are on the side of the middle class." The ideal way to support their strategy, and their party's overall goals, is by defending Social Security - clearly, unequivocally, and forcefully.

That's the political dimension of this issue. But the best news of all is this: It's good policy, too.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at