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Will Social Security Decide Race for Maryland U.S. Senate Seat?

03/11/2015 10:52 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The race for Barbara Mikulski's seat in the U.S. Senate has just begun. But Social Security is already shaping up as a major issue, especially between two leading contenders: U.S. Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards.

Van Hollen is favored by some party leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Edwards, for her part, is extremely popular among progressives and economic populists. Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee promoted a "draft Edwards" movement before she declared her candidacy on Tuesday.

Van Hollen has a problem. He was an outspoken supporter of the Simpson-Bowles plan, a proposal drawn up by the two co-chairs of a presidential commission on federal deficits and Social Security. When their commission failed to agree on recommendations, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles issued their own.

The Simpson-Bowles plan was popular among Washington insiders, wealthy interests, and the Hydra-headed network of organizations funded by billionaire anti-"entitlements" hedge funder Pete Peterson. It was notably unpopular with the public, according to polls, as most voters rejected its melding of Medicare and Social Security cuts with lower corporate and high-income taxes.

Van Hollen was one of the plan's strongest Democratic advocates. In 2012 he called Simpson-Bowles the "framework" for a budget deal. The Wall Street Journal reported that, as "part of a deal that included tax increases," Van Hollen "said changing Social Security" (i.e., reducing benefits) "and increasing the Medicare eligibility age above 65 should be part of negotiations."

Those words are coming back to haunt him. When asked about Social Security recently, Van Hollen avoided any mention of benefit cuts. But he appeared uncomfortable and did not offer an unqualified statement of support for protecting -- or expanding -- benefits.

Edwards was quick to draw a contrast between herself and Van Hollen in the video announcing her Senate candidacy, saying she has a record of "standing up to anyone who would compromise away Social Security and Medicare -- no ifs, ands, buts, or willing-to-considers."

That last phrase is a direct challenge to Van Hollen, who was quoted by the Wall Street Journal in 2012 as saying, "I'm willing to consider all of these ideas" -- Social Security and Medicare cuts -- "as part of an overall plan." It was also a rebuke to the many congressional Democrats who have said they were "willing to consider" similar reductions.

Van Hollen is progressive in some ways. Other potential Democratic Senate candidates would certainly be more economically conservative. There is even the risk that Edwards and Van Hollen could split the progressive vote, allowing a more conservative Democrat to win the nomination.

But the distinction that Donna Edwards has drawn is worth making. Since the Bill Clinton era of triangulation, a growing number of Democrats have been "willing to consider" undermining the key programs of the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. This is especially unwise in a time of soaring wealth inequality, when they should be fighting to expand these programs instead.

Compromise is sometimes necessary, and that's understood. But even as Republicans have become more extreme and further out of touch with the needs and wants of the majority, some Democrats have become increasingly willing to compromise on core values -- and increasingly unwilling to commit themselves wholeheartedly to a populist economic agenda. Social Security and Medicare are key elements of that agenda.

Instead of fighting for programs that benefit the majority, these Democrats have focused on process over policy, selling themselves as "deal makers" with an increasingly extremist Republican Party. That has left voters uninspired, as we saw in last year's elections.

That's why Edwards' unequivocal stand on these programs is so important. The populist agenda isn't just good policy; it's good politics. Poll after poll has shown that it has the enthusiastic backing of voters across the political spectrum. (See PopulistMajority.org.) As for Social Security, in a poll taken before last year's election, researcher Celinda Lake found that 73 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans -- as well as 90 percent of Democrats -- want it expanded.

Lake also found that Social Security is a "valence issue" -- that is, one that speaks to voters' core values and can shift their votes.  Programs like Social Security and Medicare represent the heart of the social contract, the sense that "we're all in this together" that binds us as a community.

In the end it comes down to a question: Are these Democrats committed to ensuring that retired working people can live in dignity and financial security? That's not just an important question on its own. it also seems to have become a litmus test for their commitment to the American majority as a whole.

A few years ago pundits were assuring politicians that voters would reward them for supporting the Simpson-Bowles plan. Now we know better. Chris Van Hollen -- and other Democratic candidates -- would be well advised to take MoveOn.org's advice and offer their unequivocal support for Social Security instead.

The Maryland race is just starting, of course. There will be other disagreements and other debates. Chris Van Hollen may have good positions on many of those issues. But on Social Security and Medicare, programs of profound importance to voters, Donna Edwards has just given herself a strong head start.