We Didn't Vote For A Grand Bargain, And We Won't Accept One

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If we wouldn't let Romney undercut Social Security and Medicare, why should we let Obama?

Now that we're back to reality, we're preparing for the very real possibility that Obama is going to cut Social Security and Medicare. (Remember how carefully his stump speech said he would not "slash" the programs? Well, there you go. He won't "slash." He'll "tweak.")

Historian Rick Perlstein says it's a really dumb idea, one that has never paid off for Democrats:

A simple historical fact: There is no political payoff for Democrats in presiding over governmental austerity. The evidence goes far back to long before Bill Clinton. In the mid-1970s, the first superstar of the Democratic austerity movement, William Proxmire, a budgetary obsessive whose campaign bumper stickers read “Waste Will Bury Us,” began awarding a monthly “Golden Fleece Award” to the government expenditure he judged the most wasteful — a clown show that frequently had no more effect than making things difficult for scientists doing basic research that frequently led to revolutionary breakthroughs. Austerity was the ideology of Gov. Jerry Brown in California, too — and also the man who beat Brown for the Democratic presidential nominee in 1976, Jimmy Carter, who announced, in his 1978 State of the Union address that “Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or provide energy.”

What Carter said wasn’t even true; for instance, he did deploy the power of government to reduce inflation, by appointing a Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, with a mandate to squeeze the money supply, an act of deliberate austerity that induced the recession that defeated him. Like I said, there was no political payoff: Ronald Reagan, depicting Carter on the campaign trail as just another Democratic spendthrift, defeated him, reappointed Volcker, then harvested the political credit when Volcker’s governmental policies did slay inflation. And then came the amnesia: When, 18 years later, Bill Clinton gave much the same State of the Union address — “The era of big government is over” — people acted like no Democrat had ever said anything like that before.

Now Barack Obama, oblivious, may be barreling into a yet more dangerous austerity dare, perhaps squeezing the two most effective and popular government programs in existence — Social Security and Medicare. Credibly pledging not just to preserve them but to extend them has been how generations of Democratic politicians have turned millions into habitual Democratic voters.

Barack Obama didn’t win by promising a grand bargain to rein them in. He won despite it. Democrats won’t win in the future by “reforming” entitlements. If they do it, they will lose, precisely because of it, and possibly for generations. If he believes things to be otherwise, God help the party of Jefferson and Jackson.


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