The spectacle of a supposedly liberal President repeatedly and needlessly trying to cut Social Security is enough to bring a reasonable, economically literate person to the point of existential despair.
March 8, 2013

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Hah, hah! Dumb Republicans don't know Obama is offering to cut Social Security? What a kneeslapper!

The spectacle of a supposedly liberal President repeatedly and needlessly trying to cut Social Security is enough to bring a reasonable, economically literate person to the point of existential despair. To see leading liberal lights like Rachel Maddow and Ezra Klein chuckle indulgently at those foolish Republicans in Congress over the subject – Don’t they know he’s already giving them what they want? – is to risk plunging into the depths of that despair.

This week, the President hosted a dinner for Republicans leaders where he worked to sell his budget proposal, including his harmful plan to cut benefits through the “chained CPI.” National Security was the main course and Social Security was the dessert. And guess who wasn’tcoming to dinner: The elderly, the disabled, or any policy experts who understand the disastrous implications of the chained CPI.

The Maddow/Klein exchange is the crest of a building wave in pro-Democratic Party commentary which says, as Klein puts it, that “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” Klein says that at least “some of the gridlock (in Washington) is due to poor information.” Jonathan Chait bemoans the fact that Republicans ”won’t acknowledge (Obama’s) actual offer, which includes large cuts to retirement programs."

Silly, silly Republicans. Klein quotes one reporter as saying of the White House, “They tell us three times a day that they want to do chained CPI!”

That’s right: The White House has been trying to impose this benefit cut on Social Security’s elderly and disabled recipients for years, and Republicans don’t even know. Neither do most Democrats, for that matter. They think they voted for a President who will defend those benefits, not work relentlessly to cut them.

But Democrats like Maddow, Klein, and Chait know better. They know exactly what Obama’s been trying to do. And their only complaint seems to be that he’s not doing it effectively enough. We’re not hearing much from the ‘left’ side of the debate about the profound flaws, biases, and inherent cynicism behind both the President’s policy and his rhetoric.

Here are the facts:

  1. Research suggests that Social Security cost-of-living increases are already inadequate. (See studies on “CPI-E” for more details on the best ways to increase them.)
  2. Obama’s proposed chained-CPI cut would typically reduce benefits for 3 percent, and by as much as 6 percent for some recipients.
  3. The White House’s decision to label this cut the “superlative CPI” is grotesque. It suggests that elderly women who receive an average of $950 or so per month are receiving “superlative” benefit increases each year.
  4. The Administration’s insistence on speaking of “entitlement reform,” mixing Medicare (which has a real cost problem because of our for-profit health system) with Social Security, is a cheap trick first devised by Republican consultants.

Progressive commentators – or neutral but well-informed observers – should be emphasizing these points. Instead we’re hearing that the President’s opponents are foolish for not knowing the President agrees with them! Each of MSNBC’s major personalities has developed his or her own personal brand of eye-rolling at Republicans. In this case we’re told that Republicans are stupid for not knowing the details of Obama’s budget proposal – especially his planned cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Stupid? Stupid like a fox – or, if you prefer, like a Fox News Network. By feigning ignorance of the President’s plan, they’re forcing the White House to repeat it over and over: We want to cut Social Security, guys! We want to cut Medicare!“They tell us three times a day …”

Surprisingly, both Maddow and Klein buy into the implausible premise that Senate Republicans, each of whom have large staffs and access to Republican Party employees, literally don’t know that Obama has offered to cut Social Security as part of a Grand Bargain. As a result of their feigned ignorance, the White House is now reiterating that offer, repeatedly and publicly.

“Obama renews budget offer to cut social safety nets,” says a typical story on this subject from Reuters.This is shaping up to be quite a victory for the GOP. Unless something changes, they’re about to see a core Democratic program cut – and the Democrats will take the heat for it! The only thing that can stop that outcome is concerted public pressure from the Democratic base.

That’s what makes the Maddow/Klein school of partisanship so tragic in this instance: By reducing this disastrous idea – the product of all the “buy-partisan” cash being spread among leader of both parties – they’re defusing political blowback from the party’s base. Public pressure from Democratic voters could stop this headlong rush into a decision that will harm America’s seniors and disabled – and save their party from a potential political catastrophe.

Maddow, Klein and others know – or should know – that Social Security doesn’t contribute to the deficit. They know – or should know – how politically damaging this move would be. They know – or should know – how much it would harm seniors. They should be demanding that the President defend the program, while forcing his opponents to attack it.

Instead, they’re applauding him for doing the dirty work himself, and criticizing his shrewd opponents for their lack of public gratitude.

How short can a Democrat’s memory be? The Republicans regained the House in 2010 by forcing Obama to make these offers, albeit far less publicly than he’s doing now. Then they ran to his left with a fraudulent “Seniors’ Bill of Rights,” after ensuring that the Democrats’ polling on this issue plunged by a startling 25 points. (At the time Obama was less trustedthan George Bush on Social Security, despite Bush’s attempt to dismantle and privatize the program).

Now the Republicans are outplaying the President once again. They’re exposing his agenda on Social Security, an agenda which became evident when he appointed anti-Social Security pitchmen Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to lead a ‘deficit commission’ shortly after his election. Now, in a form of media-related collateral damage, this strategy may also wound the credibility of commentators like Maddow and Klein.

Jonathan Chait asks, “Would teaching Republicans about Obama help?” Not nearly as much as teachers voters about Obama’s proposal would hurt. The President’s Social Security proposals are deeply misguided, both as policy and as politics, and this flattering commentary is deeply damaging.

As part of their long game, Sen. Lamar Alexander and the GOP issued a press releaseentitled “If the History Books Were Written Today, We Would Remember President Obama for the Sequester.”

They know that’s not true. Of course the President won’t be remembered for the sequester. If things don’t change, we’ll remember President Obama for cutting Social Security – and his party will pay the price. Disabled and elderly Americans will pay an even higher price. And the Republicans will be laughing all the ways to the polls in 2014.

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