Social Security was signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt on August 14, 1935. Since then, it has been the fundamental bedrock of the New Deal, and of our commitment as Americans to form a more perfect Union.
It was passed against solid Republican opposition. 99% of the Republicans in the House tried to kill the Social Security Act by sending the bill back to committee. The Democrats controlled the House, and the GOP attempt failed. When the bill moved to the Senate, 63% of Senate Republicans again tried to kill the bill. They failed in the Senate as well, and Social Security became the law of the land.
At last the Republicans felt they had found an issue. Excited reports rolled into Landon: thus from Ohio - "The labor vote has stayed unimpressed and adamant until now that the Social Security issue is brought home to them. This state is all agog over payroll reduction." As voting day came nearer, Republican orators harped with ever-increasing intensity on the horror which lay ahead. The Social Security Act, said Frank Knox, "puts half the working people of America under federal control."
The Republican nominee, Alf Landon, claimed that Social Security was "unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted, and wastefully financed" and the idea of guaranteed benefits was a "cruel hoax".
The Republican campaign of 1936 was the end of the progressive wing of the Republican Party, just as the Goldwater campaign twenty-eight years later would doom the moderate wing. The ideological heirs of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt left the party in droves. The chairman of the Social Security Board, a progressive Republican named John Winant, resigned his position to campaign for FDR.
Republican advertisements claimed that workers would see their names replaced with "New Deal numbers", and that they would have to wear metal dog-tags. On the Monday before Election Day, the Hearst papers ran front page headlines screaming "Do You Want A Tag And A Number In The Name Of False Security?".
Roosevelt, in the words of his biographer, was driven to fury. In a speech at Madison Square Garden he pointed out that "never before in all history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."
As the crowd, which filled the Garden to the rafters, roared approval, Roosevelt continued, "The recovery we are winning is more than economic. In it are included justice and love and humility, not for ourselves as individuals alone, but for our nation. That is the road to peace."
The election was expected to be close. Literary Digest had famously predicted a Republican victory, and in the days before reliable polling, no one knew how the scare tactics would play. When the early results came in, Roosevelt asked for reconfirmation; the margins couldn't be that large. They were. The verdict was clear. No president since George Washington had won such a victory. Roosevelt won more votes than any candidate in history. He won the largest plurality ever, and the highest proportion of electoral votes since 1820. The Democrats were rewarded with the largest House majority since 1855, and the largest Senate majority since 1869. The tally was 27,476,673 for Roosevelt, and 16,679,583 for Landon.
For years, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation" had been a political aphorism, but after the election of 1936, the joke became "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont". Mr. Roosevelt carried the other 46 states.
In 1939, the Democrats proposed extending Social Security benefits to dependents and survivors of retired workers. Three-quarters of the Republican Congressional delegation voted against the bill, again trying to kill it in committee. Again they failed, and so despite their efforts, millions of middle class Americans saw their economic security solidified, and the ever-increasing promise of America made real.
The war effort pushed domestic policy to the backburner for the remainder of the Roosevelt Administration, but when the Republicans recaptured the Congress in 1948, their leadership declared their intent to end Social Security. Harry Truman gave them hell, and Social Security was preserved. In 1950, the Democrats voted to extend Social Security benefits to the disabled, but 89% of the Republican delegation voted against the proposal. The Republicans still controlled the legislature, and the proposal was defeated.
1952 saw the election of Dwight Eisenhower, whose refusal to go along with his party's efforts to kill Social Security cemented the status of the New Deal as an American guarantee, and not only a Democratic one. The Republican Congress was not so progressive, and they were thrown out and the Democrats returned to power. In 1956, the Democratic-controlled legislature was able to pass the disability benefit. 86% of Senate Republicans voted no.
In 1964, the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater, who was the last Republican to openly campaign for the elimination of Social Security. Since his historic landslide defeat, the radical Republicans have learned to hide their goals in liberal and progressive-sounding rhetoric. It's popular these days to suggest that 1964 was the beginning of the Republican resurgence, but that's hardly the case. In addition to sending Lyndon Johnson back to the White House, the Goldwater campaign decimated the Republican Congressional caucus, and the Democrats increased their majorities to 68 in the Senate, and 295 in the House. Until the southern Democrats defected over civil rights, the Democratic majority was untouchable. As Brad DeLong writes:
In the short run Goldwaterism had other consequences: the damage it did to Republican congressional power were the only things that made the Great Society possible: the Johnson-era expansions of the social insurance state and the Nixon and post-Nixon-era expansions of the regulatory state were possible only on congressional foundations that had been created by Goldwater's Samson act directed against the Republican establishment.
To make possible the Great Society--and then to cheer when Ronald Reagan rolls back 10% of it--Goldwaterism was the greatest own-goal and act of political delusion by conservatives in the twentieth century.
The Republican Party, chastised by their continual defeat, swung back towards the middle, with Presidents Nixon and Ford governing as domestic-policy and economic liberals. But the conservatives had tasted power, and eventually captured the party after the bitter and divisive primaries of 1976 and 1980. Their views never changed. George W. Bush ran for Congress on 1978 claiming that Social Security would be broke in 10 years, and that phasing it out with private accounts was the only answer. He was soundly defeated in that election.
Ronald Reagan was a conservative in the Barry Goldwater mold, and when he was elected in 1980, slash-and-burn government became the modus operandi of the Republican Party. But liberalism had long since won the day, even while the continuous rhetorical assault on the name "liberal" succeeded.
And so when Reagan moved Social Security to the front of his agenda in 1981, and proposed $200 billion in cuts, he found himself isolated from his Congressional allies. His proposal included a reduction of early retirement benefits, a delay in cost of living adjustments, slashed eligibility for disability pay, and a 10% cut in guaranteed benefits for all new retirees. The Senate quashed his proposal 96-0.
With their big assault blunted, the President and Senate Republicans proposed cutting benefits by $40 billion over three years. And in 1985, the GOP-controlled Senate voted to eliminate cost of living adjustments, as a first step in phasing out the program. Vice President Bush cast the tie-breaking vote, and the measure cleared the Senate. The House was firmly Democratic, and the bill was defeated.
The Democrats ran on Social Security in the 1986 midterm elections, and recaptured the Senate.
Why do they do this? What causes the Republican Party to continually shoot itself in the foot over Social Security? Every time they've gained control of the government in the last sixty years, they have without hesitation turned their guns on the New Deal. They always do it, and they always lose. The answer, I suppose, is because they believe it. Philosophically, they don't believe that government should help provide the average American with economic security. They believe that relying on the government saps the will and makes one less free. I think that's a load of crap, but it's what they believe, and I respect that, and we can have a legitimate political debate.
This time, though, the Republicans have decided to obfuscate their goals, and cloak their agenda with progressive language. It's "Clear Skies" all over again. That's why George Bush misquoted Franklin Roosevelt during his State of the Union. It's why they are so dishonest about the costs of the program. It's why the reason for private accounts keeps changing. It's why they are reluctant to provide any actual numbers or proposals.
They want to undermine public confidence in the program by pretending that it is on the verge of collapse. They want to de-fund it, and watch Social Security wither on the vine. They don't actually care how it's done; private accounts, cost of living adjustments, price-indexing vs. wage-indexing. The mechanism doesn't matter to them. What matters is destroying the public trust in government, and turning Social Security from a minimum guarantee into a retirement account, subject to the vagaries of the free market. And once that guarantee is gone, there is no reason to keep the program going. There's no reason to have the government provide retirement accounts; we can do that on our own. And that, of course, is their point.
The Republicans are smart people, and they've learned from their previous mistakes. They see how Goldwater and Reagan and Gingrich failed. They have a brief moment now to strike, while they control all the levers of power in Washington. Unlike Goldwater and Reagan, they aren't bothering to attack the philosophical foundations of liberalism, or to win the debate on the role of government. You won't catch Bush traveling to Tennessee, as Goldwater did, to give a fire-and-brimstone speech denouncing the Tennessee Valley Authority. You won't catch Bush traveling to Philadelphia, Mississippi, as Reagan did, to sing the virtues of states' rights. They know those arguments are lost, and so they have adopted the language of progressivism.
They feign allegiance to the goals of the New Deal and the Great Society, and they move to undermine its foundation. "Starve the beast," says the Club for Growth. "The Constitution in Exile," bleats the Federalist Society. Explode the budget, de-fund popular government programs, install judges who will chip away at Wickard and the modern understanding of the Commerce clause. This is their agenda; this is their plan of attack.
The defense must be mounted now. We must not compromise on this issue. We need to stand united in defense of the New Deal. It is not enough, of course, for the Democratic Party to be only the party of the New Deal. The promise of America must be expanded to include all of us. Freedom from fear, and freedom from want must be the heritage of all Americans. Universal health care and a clean environment. True energy independence, and a foreign policy that restores our moral authority. We need to fight for a progressive agenda. We need to stand tall as Democrats and fight for what we believe.
But right now, at this moment, we need to derail the Republican assault on Social Security. We have the votes to stop them in the Senate, and their support in Congress and in the country is far weaker than ours. Stop them now, nationalize the 2006 mid-terms, and turn that election into a referendum on the wisdom of the Republican phase-out plan.
The Democrats need to resist the temptation to make a deal with the Republicans on Social Security. Not only is it bad policy, it's bad politics. This is our issue, and control of the Congress is a zero-sum game. In order for us to win, the Republicans need to lose.
This is a very old and familiar story. They've tried this many times before, and we've stopped them many times before. The Republicans are stronger now than they have been in the past, and the fight will be harder this time. But we can still win it, and in doing so, we can weaken them and help return a progressive Democratic majority to Washington.
Update, March 7, 6:07 PM: I've created this diary as a repository of my references and citations.