It is a well-known fact that President Obama wants a "grand bargain" with the Republicans, a deal that would reduce future deficits both by raising tax revenues and cutting spending, including on the so-called "entitlement programs." He has offered this idea up repeatedly to Speaker Boehner and other Republican leaders in the 2011 debt ceiling talks and in the 2012 fiscal cliff debate, and media reports suggest that he is discussing the idea again with Republicans in the lead-up to the next perils of a budget crisis that is only a few weeks off.
Democrats in the progressive wing of the party (of which, full disclosure, I am a card carrying member) think the idea of cutting Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid benefits is terrible public policy because senior citizens who can least afford it will be badly hurt, and we have been working hard to convince the president to back away from this offer. This may be difficult to do, though, as the president has some strong (wrong, in my judgment, but compelling to the president's political and legislative team) political reasons for wanting to do this grand bargain. But the politics of this deal are very different for the rest of the party, and it may well be that progressives can win over a lot more of those Democrats than conventional wisdom currently expects.
The Obama team's logic is that they are sick and tired, understandably, of Republicans wanting to make every single issue, every policy debate, about the deficit issue, and they don't want our country to keep lurching from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis as Republicans continue to look for "leverage" to force more cuts. And the White House, to their credit, is eager to move on to other issues that will move the country forward, such as immigration reform and gun safety issues. They believe that if they can finally close the deal and get the grand bargain they have been searching for that they will be on strong political ground to be able to say regarding the deficit, "Hey, we've already done something big on that, it's time to move on."
Now I happen to believe their logic is wrong on the politics of the issue, as Republicans' strongest political issue by far is the deficit, and they will never give it up -- no matter what happens, they will keep demanding more and more cuts, and the deficit hawks in the media and well-funded groups like Fix The Debt will back them up. But even if you were to grant that the White House was right on the politics of this issue for them, for Democratic members of Congress the politics on this issue are completely different.
For starters, members of Congress are far more affected by what I call the intensity factor. Remember about 25 years ago when senior citizens surrounded Con. Rostenkowski's car and started rocking it back and forth because of a bill they didn't like on catastrophic health care? Think what seniors today might do if their Social Security benefits were cut. That kind of intensity drives bad media coverage back home, primary challenges, contributions to opponents -- and it kills your contributors' and volunteers' and base voters' enthusiasm levels.
The threat of a primary is not as great on the Democratic side as on the Republican, as the progressive movement has less money and capacity in general to mount many successful primary challenges. In the last several cycles, there has usually been one major primary challenge (some successful, some not) to an incumbent from the left, and that isn't enough to strike fear into most Democrats' hearts. The intensity factor, though, might change the dynamics on this, adding new money and volunteers to primary fights. Add to that the combination of progressive forces with older voters who have just had their Social Security cut, and incumbent Democrats might have something to worry about, especially in states like PA, OH, MI, WI and IA with both large numbers of seniors and large numbers of union members.
Beyond the primaries, though, the politics of cutting benefits is far worse for Democratic incumbents in an off year general election. Think about the demographics alone: in the past two presidential elections, the percent of the electorate that came from voters 65 and over was 16 percent, whereas in the 2010 off-year election it jumped to 21 percent. And seniors have been one of the most volatile demographic groups in the electorate in recent years, and one not inclined to like Democrats very well: Democrats lost them by 8 percent in 2008, by a whopping 21 percent in 2010, and by 12 percent in 2012.
But seniors are far from the only worry with a bad vote on Social Security or Medicare. The voters that Democrats have to turn out in big numbers in an off-year are base voters. Base voters hate the idea of cutting Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and a Democrat who had to defend that vote would be looking square in the face at a base voter constituency that was likely to be very depressed. I've lived through two off-year elections where Democratic base voters were unexcited about voting -- 1994 and 2010 -- and I don't relish living through that again.
What will be especially brutal in the off-year election for Democrats who believe they have cut a responsible bipartisan deal that will protect them from Republican attacks is that the unaccountable outside groups with their millions of dollars in attack ads won't hesitate to do brutal ads on them for cutting Social Security and Medicare, just as they did the last two elections attacking them for "cutting" Medicare. It won't matter that the Republicans wanted to cut even more, or that the money for the ads comes from millionaires who would love to see these programs privatized: the attack dogs will not hesitate to make political hay off such a vote.
Beyond rank and file members of Congress, there is another major force in the Democratic party for whom a grand bargain is potentially deadly, and that is potential presidential candidates. Try explaining your vote cutting Social Security to the heavily senior citizen and base activist dominated Iowa caucuses. Having been involved in 5 different presidential campaigns, I feel pretty confident saying that it would be extremely tough to win a Democratic presidential primary having supported cutting Social Security benefits.
Even if you grant that the politics of the grand bargain idea are good for President Obama, they are poison for Democrats in Congress who have to run again in 2014 and 2016. The president, who will never run for office again, may feel like his best political alternative is to ignore the wishes of both his base and the seniors, who have never voted for him anyway on an issue like Social Security cuts. For the rest of the party, they had better take a close look at how this will affect their own political well-being.