At least three senators up for reelection in Republican-leaning states next year are defying President Obama by indicating they'll refuse to support the White House's Social Security cuts in any "Grand Bargain" on the budget. There are a number of reasons why this is important, including the fact that it may scuttle the chance (if there ever was one) for any deal.
But something else makes this development what the Vice President of the United States might call "a big effin' deal": It tells us once and for all where the real political center lies.
Politicians and media types in Washington love to argue that these slashes to Social Security, along with other corporate- or billionaire-backed spending cuts, are something that the "middle" wants. But when it comes time to run for reelection in Republican or Republican-leaning states -- in other words, when the rubber meets the road -- politicians suddenly remember how to read their polls rather than their pals.
The "chained CPI," a Social Security cut and middle-class tax hike rolled into one, is despised across the political spectrum. Washington's "center" is formed by the consensus of lobbyists, politicians, mainstream media employees, and other beneficiaries of corporate largesse. But the real political center - the one where most voters live -- loathes these one-percent-friendly cuts.
The president will never run for political office again. Neither will Bill Clinton, who's pushing this cut. Billionaire Pete Peterson, a major force behind the chained CPI, won't be running for office either. Nor will the CEOs of "Fix the Debt," their lobbyists, or the lazy editors and journalists who so cavalierly mislead the public this critical issue.
But these Red State senators understand that their political survival depends on rejecting this repellent, ill-advised, and mean-spirited benefit cut and tax hike. They, not the cynical hacks in the cut-promoting "Gang of Six," represent the true center. As the "Gang" members leave office and begin their well-paid corporate afterlives, the real center is taking shape before our very eyes.
It includes Senators Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. These Democrats all represent states which were carried by Mitt Romney in 2012. Cynical journalists may repeat the canard that it's "fringe" or "leftist" to resist these cuts, but these senators are looking at the numbers at least as fervently as they're looking into their consciences.
The numbers say "No" on the chained-CPI. All three Red State centrists even took the relatively extreme step of co-sponsoring a Senate resolution opposing the benefit cut/tax hike proposal. They weren't afraid to join forces with stalwart liberals like Sens. Tom Harkin, Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley, Sherrod Brown, and Elizabeth Warren.
Why aren't they afraid? Because they've seen the polls. Ryan Grim and Sabrina Siddiqui report in The Huffington Post that when voters were offered different choices for long-term funding of Social Security, "Internal Democratic surveys... found that chained CPI is the least popular entitlement reform."
These results are in line with earlier polls, including those which showed that 75 percent of Republicans -- and 76 percent of self-described Tea Party members -- opposed Social Security cuts. The president's 2009 and 2010 flirtations with these cuts contributed to a 25-point plunge in support for Democrats on the question of who has the better ability to handle Social Security.
Polls in 2010 showed that President Obama was even less trusted than George W. Bush on the topic -- even after Bush tried to privatize the program, which would have been disastrous after the 2008 financial crisis. Despite furious attempts to move public opinion, most Americans are as resolutely opposed to these cuts as they were in 2010, when 75 percent of Republicans -- and 76 percent of Tea Party members -- voiced their opposition to the chained CPI.
The VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) hates it too, and they're a pretty Red-State bunch of folks.
Perhaps with these polls in mind, Sen. Begich is also announcing two new bills which would introduce the reforms Social Security really needs: scrapping the payroll tax cap to restore long-term fiscal stability, and increasing the cost-of-living adjustment above its current level (which fails to meet the cost increases typically faced by seniors and disabled people who collect Social Security benefits).
We quoted Vice President Biden earlier as well. If he still has plans to run for president, this should be a "big deal" for him too. His electoral chances would be all but crushed if the administration he serves goes down in history as the first Democratic White House to cut, rather than strengthen, Social Security. His own personal credibility would also take a walloping, since he said this to a group of older voters in a Virginia coffee shop during last year's campaign:
"I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you."
Joe Biden's political prospects, along with those of many other Democrats, will look a lot dimmer if this benefit cut and tax hike is passed. The polls flat guarantee it.
Needless to say, the harsh political and economic realities outside the Beltway will never budge the well-fed elites who are pushing for these hurtful cuts. (Hurtful to others, that is.) Their definition of "centrism" only goes as far as a center table as Marcel's on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Today, readers of The Washington Post's editorial page were treated, not to an explanation from these senators, but to yet another editorial favoring the chained CPI -- this time from a lesser-known Democratic Representative. Why weren't these swing-state senators or others of like mind given a platform in the opinion section of The Washington Post?
Because it's The Washington Post. It represents the Beltway consensus.
But these senators won't be facing Washington insiders on the campaign trail next year. They'll be facing voters. And voters hate the chained CPI. What's more, these senators know that it only took the GOP fifteen minutes from the moment the president announced these cuts to use the issue against them. That's how Democrats lost the House in 2010.
These senators don't want to lose.
There are many good reasons to hate the chained CPI. Politicians should hate it too, if they want to remain politicians.