The Steak Fry is a wonderful afternoon of speeches and food, and an Iowa tradition dating back 33 years. Tom Harkin is the master of ceremonies, along with Ruth Harkin, and the deep affection of their fellow Democrats is always obvious. Sometimes you can tell who wants to run for President by who shows up. Attendees have included Barack Obama (2006), Obama/Clinton/Edwards/Biden/Dodd/Richardson (2007), Brian Schweitzer (2008), and Al Franken (2009). This year the speakers were David Plouffe and David Axelrod, and their speeches left no doubt they are thinking ahead to 2012. I intended to write a diary about this year's Steak Fry, but that will have to wait.
After the speeches were over, I saw that the two Davids were working a line of Democrats along a snow fence, so I stood and waited to talk to them.
When David Plouffe held out his hand, I introduced myself as a precinct captain, and told him I'm concerned about the future. I said that I fear that the debt commission will recommend cutting Social Security by raising the retirement age and messing with cost of living adjustments, and that the President will sign the bill.
He quickly said that the Republicans want to privatize Social Security, and the Democrats will fight against that.
I said I was talking about what Democrats will do, not Republicans. If 41 Blue Dogs vote with the GOP, cuts will pass. It would be a political disaster for Democrats. People in my rural area depend on it to survive. I said what I believe:
If you cut Social Security there will be no selling or excusing that in 2012.
Instead of responding on Social Security, Plouffe started talking about the deficit and how it had to be addressed, implying that it would justify changes to Social Security. I said that according to Krugman and other economists, Social Security doesn't affect the deficit, and people want to cut it just to make the bond market happy. He said they don't always agree with Krugman, and made a little face that said he isn't their favorite. Then he started talking about China and the trade situation, and a mixed salad of other "big issues" facing the White House. I don't remember everything he brought up because I was thinking that he was filibustering to avoid talking about Social Security, and it was frustrating. I think his point was that they have big problems to address, but he did not explain why any of it was relevant to raising the Social Security retirement age.
So I said that I agreed with everything he and Axelrod had said in their speeches, and I was with them on what they said. But if they cut Social Security it will be a political disaster for the Democratic Party, it is immoral, and it will be a terrible mistake.
In 2012, he wants Iowa precinct captains on his side, so it would have been in his interest to reassure me when I declined to be distracted by GOP privatization threats and the trade deficit. It would have been easy, but he didn't even try. His body language was closed. He seemed uncomfortable or slightly irritated. I'll give him credit for not lying to me at least, but he convinced me that what David Brooks wrote was true.
...I had conversations with four senior members of the administration ... Besides, the long-range debt is what matters, and on this subject President Obama is hawkish.
He is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.
We need to listen to what politicians are not saying. What Plouffe said about privatization, I also heard in several speeches by congressmen. But the only actual plan for privatization has been offered by Paul Ryan, and the GOP has not adopted Ryan's plan, probably more out of cowardice than lack of conviction. What the politicians are not saying is what Senator Obama said on his website before it was taken down in September 2008. As Peter Bray of Slate pointed out, this was removed:
And he does not believe it is necessary or fair to hardworking seniors to raise the retirement age.
Anyone who thinks that it is not possible that a Democratic President would sign Social Security cuts passed by a Democratic Congress into law, should look at the membership of the Cat Food Commission, which is packed with people who have a long history of hostility to Social Security and an insufficient understanding of how it works. And listen to what the President said: everything is on the table. Then consider that if the Commission does not recommend tax hikes or defense cuts (reported by TPM to be a likely outcome) then all the Republicans will vote yes. (Not discussed in this diary, Medicare is another fight going on in the Commission with potentially devastating implications for seniors.) They will need 41 Blue Dogs to go along, and Raul Grijalva can still be a progressive hero for saying that he and 100 Progressive Caucus members will not support cuts, without ever being in danger of having to vote for them. (There is one theory about what the Progressive Caucus could do to stop them, but I would bet money they won't do it, and I don't know whether it would work.) Is it realistic to think that if the Commission recommendations pass the House and the Senate, the President will not sign the bill after he himself set this process in motion? I think the answer is no.
And yes, the deficit needs to be addressed [pdf]. But not by making people work as Wal-Mart greeters until they hit 70, because employers don't want them and their retirement accounts were flushed by Wall Street. And not by making the COLA adjustments even more stingy. The average recipient gets between $14,000 (men) and $11,000 (women) a year. If changes are made to benefits they should be increased, not cut.
There have been plenty of ideas for filling the gap in Social Security, which first appears in 2037, but cutting benefits 20% now to avoid cutting them 22% 27 years from now doesn't make a lot of sense if that is really the objective. And reducing the deficit should not be accomplished without a good hard look at defense spending, including Homeland Security, as well as revenue sources such as raising the cap on withholding. These debates will go on, but first we need to save the Democrats from themselves.
We have got to fight the White House, the Blue Dogs, the Democratic leadership, and the Cat Food Commission. (And it's not like the press is asking many good questions.) We have to fight our own party and our own President for their own good, and ours, and for the benefit of the elderly and sick people who depend on Social Security for their very survival. Bob Shrum got this right:
Rather than allow such cuts to be greased through the lame duck session of a decimated Democratic Congress, or passed under cover of "bipartisanship" in a decidedly more Republican one next year, shouldn’t the case be stated and debated before the election? (Right now, Social Security is treated as the issue that dare not speak its name.) There is also the question of Democratic identity: What does the party stand for if not Social Security? And then there is the question of Democratic stupidity: Qualified and muted comments by Democrats in effect suggesting that Democrats won’t endanger Social Security as much as the other guys will can only further pave the road to defeat.
Every politician should be asked whether they support raising the retirement age, and reducing cost of living adjustments. If they won't sign the social security pledge, you know where they stand. The only way to stop them is to terrify them so thoroughly that they will think of voting for cuts as political suicide, and start thinking about the deficit with a little more logic.
The Iowa caucuses will be starting up a year from now. Who wants to go doorknocking for Barack Obama and try to explain to angry senior citizens that it was necessary to cut retirement and disability benefits so that the deficit from millionaire tax cuts and two wars could be paid back with their money? Anyone?
Ask your representatives to sign the petition from Campaign for America's Future.
Visit Strengthen Social Security, sign the petition, get on their mailing list, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.
Social Security is under attack. Conservatives who want to cut benefits are using these myths to scare people. Join our campaign to fight back against the lies.
And most important, during the next 50 days, show up. When candidates ask for your vote, ask for their pledge to strengthen Social Security, not cut it. If they are having an event, go. If they're on a radio show, call in. Write a letter to the editor objecting to privatization AND cuts. There is no harm in making the Republicans afraid to vote for cuts. If your representative is a Republican, go for it. If candidates are with you, give money, volunteer, and thank them for standing up for ordinary people. Suggested activities in the poll.