Slate‘s John Dickerson all but declares Obama’s budget strategy to be triangulation:
The Obama strategy relies on theater. There is nothing substantively new about Obama’s budget plan. He has offered versions of the same plan privately to Republican leaders, but now he’s trying to go around those leaders. One requirement for building trust with Republican senators is putting these offers on paper. This is meant to show individual senators that he is making good on the promises he has made in private conversations, but it also offers them the cover they need with their constituents. If senators are going to flirt with tax increases, they have to show their voters that they purchased something in return. Now they can point to the president’s public effort on entitlements. But wait, how do we know that Obama is really making a sacrifice? Just look at how upset his supporters are.
I generally accept that triangulation helped Bill Clinton out during the mid-1990s. In general, it’s a good idea for presidents to maintain some level of independence from their Congressional party, and I believe that Mitt Romney’s inability to do so hurt him politically in the campaign. However, to quote Lou Reed, those were different times. For one thing, the public’s attitudes toward Democrats and the GOP were more or less reversed compared to what they are now, so Clinton was wise to create a distinction between himself and a less-popular Democrat brand. In any event, now it’s the GOP’s brand that’s in tatters, not so much the Democrats’, so such a strategy isn’t strictly necessary. Second, polarization has increased tremendously since the early 1990s, and the simple fact is that there are fewer swing voters/radical centrists/Perotistas out there to appeal to with such a strategy. There are basically hard partisans and low-info voters at this point, and the latter need to be presented with a simple, emotionally potent argument rather than a chain of logic and assertions. Third, the power of the mainstream media has diminished tremendously over the same time period, while the power of partisan media and ideological interests within the Democratic Party has increased greatly. Simply put, the factors that made triangulation a smart strategy for Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s don’t really hold anymore. Mobilizing activists and party actors is where it’s at these days I think, but this other, old-fashioned thinking is par for the course in a White House full of Clinton alums.
The defense of this strategy is not so compelling, either:
If the grand bargain gambit fails, Obama will be able to campaign against Republicans as being unreasonable. He took a risk by offering cuts to entitlements, angered his party, and Republicans still wouldn’t budge. This is another way in which those protests help the larger cause. Later, if the big deal fails, the size of the protests will remind people how much more willing the president was to take a risk for an agreement than Republicans were. Chained CPI will not have passed, and Democrats will be in a stronger position politically.
What’s sad about this is that Obama’s budget isn’t that bad overall. There are definitely things in it that liberals could run with, but none of that is going to happen because Obama decided to include chained CPI specifically to placate Republicans, and now that proposal has subsumed the rest of the document in the minds of liberals. I’m assuming this was deliberate, and this is how they wanted it to go down. Nevertheless, Obama is fighting a two-front war now, and as both Wilhelm II and Hitler learned, those are damn difficult to win. While “Republicans wouldn’t let me raise taxes and cut Social Security” might or might not be a winning argument among Washington pundits, I’m really not sure that it is going to be a killer weapon against Republicans in 2014. Call me crazy.
I thought it was very weird a few weeks ago when a senior AARP employee said that the group would be fine with Social Security cuts. Very weird, in fact. It felt more like someone freelancing than an organizational directive, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Now the AARP has come out against benefit cuts, which makes a whole lot more sense to me.
I personally don’t oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare on principle. Some–like phasing out survivor benefits–make sense to me. And I’m ambivalent about means testing–I don’t really think it would unravel the safety net, but I don’t really think it would raise much money either. But here’s the thing: I’m just a guy writing on a blog. The AARP is an organization that tons of seniors join specifically to maintain and improve their lifestyles in old age. They should be opposed to deals that hurt seniors. That shouldn’t be the last word on the subject, as seniors are only one group among many. But increasingly I have little patience for groups that purport to look out for people–in fact, who are trusted by the people they represent to look out for them–and then go ahead and play political games.
I know this is really a basic point, but it had been bothering me.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told the Wall Street Journal that he’s “determined to offer a budget this spring that curbs Social Security and Medicare, despite the political risks, and that Republicans will try to persuade voters that sacrifices are needed.” Said Boehner: “People in Washington assume that Americans understand how big the problem is, but most Americans don’t have a clue… Once they understand how big the problem is, I think people will be more receptive to what the possible solutions may be.”Obviously, there’s no proposal in place yet, so I can’t offer specific criticisms. There are ways of cutting Medicare spending that would be fine with me. But probably not too many that could also get a majority in the Republican House. And very likely not many from the Rand-influenced Budget Chairman, Paul Ryan. I know that Republicans believe that Americans now back them on everything, but at this point, it’s worth remembering what happened the last time Republicans tried to tinker with entitlements:
Admittedly, there was other stuff going on in that election, but that’s extraordinary compared to the last two elections, which Republicans won among seniors by 20 points. I doubt Boehner’s caucus is giving him much choice in the matter, they’re convinced they’re going to win, and that the public is on its side. The evidence suggests they’re not, at least in general. But it will be interesting to see how all this plays out politically. So far, Republicans have launched major assaults on public employee unions, reproductive rights groups, and it’s been promised that seniors will be up next. In other words, they’re systematically energizing the key interest groups on the left, and will likely alienate the most reliable voting bloc in the country. It’s like they’re trying to create a perfect storm to drive themselves out of power.
In the current spending bill, they’re proposing to slash the administrative funds that federal employees use to run the program. Democrats warn this will lead to furloughs and other service interruptions that could delay checks and prevent new retirees from enrolling. “To jeopardize a lifeline for half a million new Social Security beneficiaries in order to score short term political points is simply bad policy,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee. “This reckless proposal would mean hundreds of thousands of Americans won’t get their Social Security checks this year. It’s a perfect example of how little House Republicans seem to care if their rigid ideological crusade hurts real people.”And the total savings will be…$1.7 billion. Seriously. That’ll make a dent in the budget. I could blame this on some sort of Republican desire to destroy Social Security by destabilizing its operations with funding cuts and then saying, “Hey, Social Security doesn’t work anymore!” but it’s really just another excuse to attack their opponents’ supporters while appearing to act on spending. There’s no end to their politics, which makes me think I wouldn’t like the terms of the “grand bargain” that people keep mentioning.
This is pretty stupid:
As it happens that puts [John Boehner] in roughly the same position as House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who as Majority Leader last year said all options — including raising the retirement age — should be on the table.
In a speech last summer about entitlements and deficits, Hoyer said, “We should consider a higher retirement age or one pegged to lifespan.”
At his weekly press availability on Wednesday, I asked him if he still stood by his previous comments, or if, like Boehner, he’d rather keep his powder dry.
“Unlike Boehner [who supported raising the retirement age outright], what I said is it ought to be on the table,” Hoyer said. “We ought to consider all options, including raising the age, but there are a lot of other options also that can be considered and I also indicated that whatever we do needs to be done prospectively. And I think all parties agree with that.”
Look, unlike many liberal bloggers, I’m not a reflexive Steny Hoyer hater. He’s not incredibly liberal, but reports of his awfulness are often exaggerated. Not this time! Maybe I’m the stupid one here and I’m misconstruing this (the link doesn’t have any amplified remarks) but how can you peg retirement age to lifespan without knowing the future? I mean, health changes pretty dramatically in older age, in ways that are hard to predict. Does this mean you get, say, ten years of retirement and then you’re cut off? Or do they figure, hey, he’s 65 and healthy, why not work a few more years? How do you avoid demographic factors when considering this? Does race/ethnicity get involved? How could it not be? All of a sudden, this is a complete damn mess, and the cure seems far worse than the original disease of a modest budgetary shortfall.
I’ve written on this before, but it’s hard to find a debate on an issue that’s more beside the point than the one we have on Social Security, which isn’t surprising since it’s one the Beltway crowd has inserted itself into most heavily. The only argument for raising the retirement age is to save money on Social Security, that’s it. The cleanest solution to the Social Security problem is to spend more money on it to guarantee benefits. You could do this by raising taxes, perhaps by just eliminating the cap on payroll taxes for the wealthy. You could make some headway on this on the cut side, too. I’ve never heard anyone actually propose phasing out survivor benefits, which strikes me as a reasonable change to make as we transition from a set of senior citizens where the women were generally homemakers who had little education to one where women were more independent and career oriented. But that’s a change that makes sense according to societal factors, not just because we’re treating the bottom line as sacrosanct. Ultimately, though, raising the retirement age is a political nonstarter and a stupid idea. From the perspective of finding employment, it’s silly because it’s extremely hard to find a job when you’re 59, let alone 69. From the perspective of why should someone have to keep working into their late sixties in the most wealthy nation in the world if they don’t want to? it makes no sense. Over the past two elections, Democrats have gotten just hammered among older voters. Standing firm on the retirement age seems like a decent way of showing this important bloc that Democrats are watching out for them. But Hoyer evidently seems more interested in charming the Beltway elites, which is why it’s such a shame that he didn’t get forced out of the leadership by Jim Clyburn.
One of the more amusing political subplots over the next four years or so is going to be watching Lindsey Graham try to convince conservative Republicans in his home state to let him get another term. For many reasons, Graham has so infuriated them that a primary challenge is certain, and I wouldn’t bet on Graham sticking it out. For my part, I’m mostly indifferent. Graham isn’t a psychopath and it’s pretty clear that he’d prefer to take on a Vintage McCain-like “Maverick” role if he could, and he did try that for a bit, but it didn’t quite work out. It’s true that he voted for both of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, and he tried for a moment to help shepherd an energy bill through the Senate last year, but he evidently forgot what state he’s representing–it’s South Carolina, not New Hampshire or Oregon or some state like that where you can get away with a little maverickiness–and he adjusted accordingly. In fact, now he’s trying on some “true conservative” positions like this one:
Congress should cut a deal this year to raise the retirement age to 69, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.
Graham, who’d flirted last month with an increase in the retirement age to help address Social Security’s solvency, backed a phased-in hike in the retirement age. [...] Graham referenced as his model the deal cut between President Reagan (R) and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill (Mass.) in the 1980s that provided for a gradual increase in the retirement age to 67.
First off, I’m not sure I like the idea of society expecting people to work until they are nearly 70. If you want to, sure, but you shouldn’t have to. The logic of this position always seems backward to me: Social Security is facing a modest revenue problem in the long term, so what do we cut? The correct question should be: at what age do we want people to be able to stop working? You start with an average age to target retirement for and then figure out the funding, you don’t start with the funding and work your way back to what it pays. That’s just arbitrary and stupid, which amazingly doesn’t stop the Beltway types from supporting it.
Second, it occurs to me that Lindsey Graham just sucks as a conservative. Okay, he’s in trouble: conservatives don’t like him. They really don’t. His prior ways of making them like him are unlikely to help him now: nobody cares about flag burning amendments anymore, and while there is a president in the White House again that the Republicans can try to impeach, Graham is no longer in the House to help manage it this time. So what can he do? Before you answer, consider that Graham has been given Moderate Status by the Beltway elite, and he appears to value it highly. He has got to propose something “conservative” while also being something that won’t completely alienate him from his Beltway friends. I guess that somehow evolved into raising the retirement age? Seriously? I’m inclined to call him a dead man already. Seniors will never go for it, for the same reason they overwhelmingly opposed Bush’s Social Security privatization, despite assurances it would not go into effect for years: they like their benefits, and if you raise the retirement age once, you can do it again. Sure, it’ll thrill the people at Cato and National Review but voters don’t like the idea of cuts to Social Security at all, across all parties and groups, and unlike Rich Lowry they will actually vote in the 2014 South Carolina Republican Senate Primary. The secret to being A Good Conservative is to sound irrationally angry about debt and deficits while simultaneously proposing nothing to fix them, like our good pal John Boehner. That covers all the bases: elites are happy, Villagers are happy, everything’s looking good. Also, you don’t actually propose massively unpopular benefit cuts to constituencies that back you. Oh, wait, I guess he missed when all the Republicans abandoned Paul Ryan’s Medicare-slashing plan almost immediately after it dropped.
Seriously, though, that’s what Graham comes up with to save his hide? What’s amazing to me is that Graham has voted with Republicans on practically every single item of importance I can think of, with a few judicial nominations excluded. He’s tried again and again to reassure them that he’s one of them, and they’ve repaid him with repeated petitions against him from within his own state. Like his buddy McCain, he has no clue how to deal with anyone other than Beltway types. I say he’s toast.
- Before social security and medicare, millions of seniors were forced to live in abject poverty because (a) they were too poor or irresponsible to build their own retirement savings, (b) if people might have had a bit of money, it was quickly wiped away by ailments so common to seniors, and (c) there was no social safety net to to provide a modest income when they hit old age.
- Once social security and medicare came along, our country almost entirely eliminated the plague of seniors living in abject poverty.
- Republicans and even a few libertarians I know have proposed to dismantle medicare and social security by giving health care vouchers to the elderly to go buy insurance in the private market, and privatizing social security so people will invest the money themselves, respectively.
- I view both of these proposals as misguided because (a) senior health care is the most expensive insurance to buy on the free market and this option would only really help people who can afford it, and (b) privatizing social security won’t protect the tens of millions of people to manage their accounts irresponsibly.
- Because of 4, and the fact that I believe that nothing can really be done to eliminate the fact that tens of millions of people are too poor and/or too irresponsible to properly save for retirement, my assertion is that dismantling medicare and social security will lead to tens of millions of seniors (not to mention handicapped people) once again living in abject poverty.
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