It’s fairly obvious by now that Social Security cuts don't play well with the American people. And, in fact, they never have. In no other way, with the possible exception of war, does the divide between the American people and their government show itself so vividly. The majority even of Republican voters stands to the left not only of Republican politicians on this issue, but to the left of Democratic leadership as well.
And yet, heading into what is likely to be a tough midterm election, with the fate of the Senate on the line, Steny Hoyer, second in command of House Democrats, chooses this moment to do this:
House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (MD) delivered a speech this morning, hosted by Third Way, on the imperative for Congress to keep working toward the goal of long-term fiscal sustainability and how Congress can make progress this year to improve our nation’s fiscal outlook. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:Whoa boy. Brace yourselves.
“Since my speech in 2010, we saw bipartisan commissions led by Bowles-Simpson and Rivlin-Domenici call for a balanced approach to deficit reduction combining revenues and spending reforms. Unfortunately, the framework put forward by the Bowles-Simpson commission was rejected, with all three House Republican Members voting no, and its recommendations were never considered by Congress."Unfortunately" we didn't implement the Simpson-Bowles cuts to Social Security and Medicare, beloved of Steny Hoyer, the Third Way, the Beltway punditocracy and 12% of America's voters.
Seventy percent of our budget is tied up in interest payments on our debt and other mandatory spending, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, C.H.I.P., the farm bill, veterans’ health, and other programs. This pressure has been growing over time, according to a Third Way report last July: ‘In the mid-1960s, the federal government spent three dollars on public investments for every one dollar it spent on the major entitlement programs. By 2012, the ratio was reversed... And the ratio will be five to one in 2022.’ "There's something almost deliciously intellectually bankrupt about making your case to cut Social Security to the Third Way, a political organization which has always had a strong desire to cut Social Security, based on a report written by the Third Way. (I wonder what the report will find regarding the ongoing health of Social Security?) But if the Third Way's own undoubtedly objective work isn't enough, Hoyer has another reason to cut Social Security. America needs to get its swag on:
“In November 2011, I attended a dinner hosted by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, along with Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists, to talk about the debt crisis facing our nation. During the discussion, Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, made a clear and compelling point: that it was time for America to ‘get its swagger back.’ "I think Congressman Hoyer might have misunderstood the song "Whip My Hair Back and Forth." Willow Smith wasn't trying to encourage Mr. Hoyer to sway reluctant Congressmen to support Social Security cuts when she penned the immortal lines: "Hop up out the bed turn my swag on/Pay no attention to them haters cause we whip 'em off."
There's almost an absurdity to it...can't the Third Way read its own report? If Steny Hoyer wants to let Third Way know he agrees with the report, wouldn't a phone call to Third Way offices suffice? "Hey, Jim. Just wanted to call up and tell you, kudos on that new report on Social Security. That'll make the liberals squeal! Yeah, see you at that Mark Warner fundraiser. I hear Indra will be there, and she's always the life of the party."
Now, even if Hoyer feels this way, and even if he feels the need to maintain a good relationship with the Third Way for some reason, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind would dictate that he not declare the causes which impel him to support this crappy policy. The most cynical, “pragmatic” political view I can muster, one which disdains all quaint morality and silly concerns over the well-being of the nation, suggests that eight months out from Election Day is a bad time to publicly endorse a policy position with which 70% of the American public disagrees. Hell, another poll not so long ago showed 82% of respondents opposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
In other words, this ridiculous policy position is also ridiculous political messaging, particularly when it comes to special elections and midterm elections. We’ve seen one recent example. While there are many explanations for why Alex Sink lost her election, it is indisputable that her Republican opponent triangulated around her on Medicare cuts—in Florida, no less—and he won. Nobody was impressed with Alex Sink’s “centrist” position on Medicare.
Perhaps that's because it's not really centrist. It's hard to imagine how the opinions of 12%-30% of the American electorate could constitute the "center" of American political thought. What are the other 70%-88%? A really big fringe?
But let’s pretend for a second that the Third Way political worldview is correct and they are in the Big Moderate Middle of American Political Thought. They aren’t, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend they are. Even if Third Way positions on earned benefits actually appealed to a broad swath of the American electorate, supporting them would still be bad politics in midterm and special elections. In any election, you either have to inspire unlikely voters to vote, or appeal to likely voters, or both.
Who votes in midterm elections? Hyper-partisans, ideologues, and the elderly.
Which hyper-partisan Democrats does Hoyer hope to rally by once again performing political black magic over the corpse of the Grand Bargain? Suppose he does get the thing up and shuffling around again. Does he think that’s going to send the hyper-partisans rushing to the polls in greater numbers? Social Security is viewed by most partisan Democrats as the crown jewel of the party’s achievements. Is this rotten (and rotting) Grand Bargain likely to inspire them?
Which brings us to the ideologues. If Hoyer wanted to discourage left-wing ideologues from voting for Democrats, he couldn’t do better than publicly endorse a Grand Bargain. The only worse thing would be starting a war, which is kind of out of the reach of the House Minority Whip.
And then there’s the elderly.
To quote Ms. Maddow:
So attacking Social Security is not going to appeal to likely midterm voters. That leaves the more difficult task of inspiring unlikely midterm voters to show up at the polls. Exactly who among these unlikely midterm voters is going to be inspired by throwing millions of elderly Americans into poverty? These guys?
This just doesn't make electoral sense. Which presents me with a conundrum.
Follow me below the orange rail for more disturbing ruminations. (And be careful stepping over it—that thing is live.)
Here's my conundrum. Steny Hoyer has been in Congress since 1981. He's been in a leadership position since 2003. I've seen him in person, and he handles a crowd with intelligence and grace, even under difficult conditions.
This man does not strike me as ignorant, or stupid.
We often write on here in a kind of `WTF are they thinking!?!?' vein which rests on the assumption that Our Democratic Leadership can't see the very obvious political phenomena which we can see. We can see these phenomena because, well, they're as plain as the nose on your face--or as a 70% majority. But somehow we assume that Steny Hoyer can't see them. In other words, we assume that neither Hoyer, nor anybody in his office, knows how to read a poll.
And it's not just Hoyer. You have to apply the same rubric to the White House. And even to Chris Van Hollen, who has some intellectual integrity about the issue, and whom I confess, against my better judgement, I have a hard time not liking--I have a weakness for the hardworking wonky civil servant types. But even Van Hollen, if you listen with any care, leaves the door wide open for Social Security cuts as a way of meeting the Republicans halfway, if only the Republicans would stop being so unreasonable and come to the table.
Now, I'm not saying that the whole Democratic caucus on both sides of the Hill is on fire to cut Social Security. There's a divide. But leaving aside the very salient question of why there should be any divide when 70% of the American people emphatically oppose cuts and this is arguably our party's crown achievement, there's an even more salient question about the nature of the divide, which is creepy in the extreme: the pro-cuts position generally is held by Democrats at the top or near the top: the White House, Steny Hoyer, even sometimes, I am sad to say,Chris Van Hollen; on the Senate side, Patty Murray and Dick Durbin. Luckily, it seems that we still have at least one friend on this issue up there amongst the Democratic leadership.
But if we assume that these men and women--mostly men--aren't ignoramuses, and do know how to read polls, and are perfectly well aware, after more than fifty years' of polling, that the American public does not want Social Security cuts, never has, and apparently never will, no matter how many crappy commercials you make, and furthermore, that elderly people tend to vote in midterm elections at a high rate, and the elderly are even less thrilled with Social Security cuts than the population as a whole, what we're left with is a profoundly disturbing conclusion: they don't care whether they gain and preserve Democratic majorities or not. They care a lot more about impressing people like this.
Why is that?
Is it because they know that they're likely to keep their seats no matter what (you can't get much safer in a seat than Hoyer, or Van Hollen, or Durbin)? And of course, Barack Obama never has to face an election again. Maybe as long as they keep their seats, they don't care whether they get or lose majorities. Harry Reid, the best friend Social Security has in leadership, is also the one who faced the most difficult challenge to his incumbency in recent years. It's easy to laugh off Sharon Angle now, but before the election, we were far from sure Harry Reid was going to make it past her. So maybe Harry's voters are able to keep him honest because he's from a swing state rather than from a "blue" or "red" state.
Or, alternatively, maybe it's not about keeping one's job in Congress. Maybe these Democratic politicians don't care whether they remain in Congress or not, as long as there's a platinum parachute waiting for them, provided by people like Pete Peterson and his friends.
Let's say for a moment that one of the above explanations is true: they don't care about building and preserving Democratic majorities, and perhaps don't even care about keeping their own seats. If that's the case, don't we need to consider what that means for the mission of this site?
I am open to other explanations of their ridiculous political behavior, including less cynical ones, but it's hard to believe that Third Way Democrats, otherwise known as the management wing of the party, care a lot about building and preserving majorities when they not only keep attacking Social Security, but do things like this.
And I think it's high time we stopped assuming, in the absence of any corroborative evidence, that this guy doesn't know how to read a poll.