What's the difference between mainstream Republican leaders and the Tea Party extremists that have been winning Republican primaries across the country?
The main difference is the willingness of the Tea Party gang to say what they believe out loud. This, of course, is driving Republican political consultants crazy. Republicans have never gotten elected by laying out to the voters the core components of their economic agenda. When they have been successful it has generally been by soft-pedaling or sugar-coating the things that mattered most to their corporate backers and playing instead to the fears and anxieties of their rank and file voters.
During his campaign for re-election in 2004, George Bush never uttered a word about his plan to privatize Social Security, cut guaranteed benefits and replace this massively popular retirement system with a risky investment scheme that allowed Wall Street to get its hands on the Social Security trust fund. But that was exactly his major policy initiative once he was re-elected.
In the 2000 election, Bush didn't focus his campaign on his plan to slash the portion of taxes paid by the wealthiest two percent of Americans and preside over a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich. And he certainly didn't explain the policy of preemptive war that resulted in the trillion dollar foreign policy disaster in Iraq.
Nor, of course, did Bush campaign on the pledge that he would take the long-term surplus in the federal budget he inherited from Clinton and turn it into more debt, during his term, than all of the presidents before him in American history put together.
This year, the Republican establishment is not worried about the primary victories of Tea Party candidates because they will advocate "far out" extremists policies. Most of the Republican Party leadership agrees with those policies. The problem is that these candidates don't seem to have enough sense -- or political experience -- to know that they're not supposed to go around talking about those policies before they're elected.
Take Ken Buck, the winner of the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Colorado. He has made it crystal clear that he simply does not believe in Social Security. In fact he said that Social Security is "horrible policy." According to Politico, Buck told a right-wing audience last spring that "I don't know that the federal government should be involved in a retirement plan," adding that the very idea of social insurance is "fundamentally against what I believe."
Now the actual content of this position is not really at variance with true Republican orthodoxy. The Republican Party opposed Social Security when it was founded seventy-five years ago, and fundamentally Republicans have never supported the notion the government should be running a pension program. They believe in what President Bush referred to as the "ownership society." Basically that means that the "private market" should take care of things, and that if you're not tough enough or smart enough to make it by yourself, you're "on your own, buddy."
When it comes to Social Security, Republicans have been trying to privatize it and cut back benefits for three quarters of a century..
This year, they are particularly keen on taking action to cut back what they call this "entitlement" because they don't want the wealthy to have to take a hit when it comes to closing the long-term structural deficit that they created with their massive Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and two costly wars.
Republicans would much rather cut the pensions of middle class retirees -- to whom Social Security pays the princely average of $14,000 per year -- than they would see tax rates for the rich go back to where they were during boom years of the Clinton administration. That's because the Bush tax cuts for the rich saved each of the tiny number of taxpayers making over $1,000,000 per year over $100,000 per year in taxes. For the truly wealthy "masters of the universe" on Wall Street we're talking millions of dollars.
Who can blame them? I'm sure most voters would agree that it's more important to save millions for the guys who sunk the economy and still make $10 million dollar bonuses -- rather than protect the income of $14,000 per year retirees. Actually, maybe not. And that's exactly why most seasoned Republican candidates keep their mouths shut about such things -- but not the Tea Party gang.
Then there is Nevada Senate candidate Sharon Angle's support for the proposition that Medicare should be abolished and replaced with vouchers for private insurance. No worry that virtually every Medicare beneficiary you talk to loves the program -- and that almost everyone over 55 years old can't wait to qualify so that they no longer have to take their chances with ravenous private insurance companies.
Of course, like Social Security, Republicans have opposed Medicare from its very inception as well. In 1996, Bill Clinton ran commercials of an iconic speech by his opponent Bob Dole bragging about how "he was there, fighting against Medicare." And there was Newt Gingrich's famous pledge that Medicare should "wither on the vine." That makes it doubly absurd that Republicans campaigned against health care reform by repeating over and over the false claim that it would "cut Medicare." But truthfulness has never been endemic to the Republican approach to political debate.
In fairness there are some major, establishment Republican leaders who believe that they should actually argue the merits of their totally unpopular positions on issue like Social Security, Medicare and tax cuts for the rich. Congressman Paul Ryan, who would be Chairman of the House Budget Committee if the Republicans were to take back control of the House, has published a detailed "Roadmap" on how he would privatize Social Security and abolish Medicare and replace it with vouchers for private insurance. Much of that "roadmap" was actually included in the Republican budget alternative that Ryan convinced the Republicans to support last year. Now that vote has begun to come back to haunt some of the members who would just as soon keep their economic views safely in the closet before the voters cast their ballots.
Over the next 90 days many Republicans may rue the day that they took that vote -- or were seduced into believing that they could safely take the covers off their true views on Social Security, Medicare and tax breaks for the rich.
The problem is that many of those swing districts that they would so dearly like to win this fall have lots of senior voters. They had been counting on scaring those voters into supporting Republican candidates with visions of "death panels" and lies about health reform-induced cuts in Medicare. Many of those seniors don't like "government spending" -- but by that they are definitely not referring to their Social Security or Medicare. They view both as social insurance -- as programs they have paid into throughout their working lives in expectation that they would be entitled to the advertised benefits -- the same way they would under any insurance plan. In focus groups the moment you tell these voters that Republicans support privatizing Social Security or replacing Medicare with vouchers for private insurance, Republican support plummets.
The public soundly rejected President Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005. You'd think that the experience of the stock market meltdown where millions of people saw their life's savings go up in smoke would be enough to convince even the most orthodox right-winger that it's a terrible idea to tie Social Security to the ups and downs of the stock market. But economic reality doesn't seem to break through the Republican's ideological and self-interest blinders.
Major Progressive organizations have launched a new coalition to press Members of Congress to defend Social Security and Medicare, and the issue has vaulted to the top of the issue agenda for Democratic candidates across the country. Democratic House Members conducted more than 100 events to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Social Security over the last weekend -- and to pledge their opposition to privatizing Social Security or cutting its benefits. That includes commitments not to raise the retirement age -- an idea that is just terrific for guys who fly around in corporate jets, but doesn't go over so well if you happen to haul bricks on construction sites or flip mattresses in hotel rooms for a living.
Americans United for Change -- which was first organized to run the successful campaign to defeat Bush's 2005 attempt to privatize Social Security -- has launched a major new initiative to stop the "Republican sneak attack on Social Security and Medicare."
The Republicans have a lot to worry about when it comes to these issues. Polls show that if the voters are talking about Social Security and Medicare on Nov. 2, Republican fortunes will drop like a rock. In fact, these two issues are like kryptonite to Republican chances. That's why you'll see mainstream Republicans scramble like mad to downplay their true intentions -- and change the subject over the weeks ahead. Republican Leader John Boehner -- who completely supports Ryan's "Road Map" -- made the mistake several weeks ago of blurting out that he supported raising the Social Security retirement age to 70. Since then he has ducked and weaved when it comes to Social Security.
But the issue won't go away, and the Republican record is clear. Tea Party extremists who haven't learned yet to moderate their language - and earnest true believers like Paul Ryan who think they can convince America that what's bad for them is good for them - have complicated the Republican problem. But the real problem is that Republicans don't believe in Social Security and Medicare - and if the spotlight shines long enough on those subjects, their true colors will ultimately show through. It's up to us to make sure that it's not just a spotlight but a laser.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.