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A Looming Betrayal

(Photo: Pete Souza / White House)

Exactly what the hell is going on around here?

On Thursday, headlines on both the Washington Post and the New York Times announced that President Obama had put both Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, as part of some “grand bargain” with House Speaker Boehner and the GOP to cut the deficit and avoid blowing the August 2 debt limit deadline. The deal, as reported, would also include as much as $1 trillion in “new revenue” to be raised by closing off and eliminating loopholes in the tax code. No tax increases of any kind were on the table.

The Post put it this way:

The White House meeting, which began shortly after 11 a.m., came as Obama pressed lawmakers to consider a far-reaching debt-reduction plan that would force Democrats to accept major changes to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for Republican support for fresh tax revenue.

The remarks ahead of Thursday's meeting indicated that GOP opposition to tax increases in the debt-limit discussions has not softened – despite a statement by Cantor on Wednesday that Republicans would consider closing some tax loopholes if such a move were offset by tax cuts elsewhere, as well as a new willingness on the part of the White House to consider major changes to Social Security and Medicare as part of a far-reaching deficit deal. House Republicans on Thursday reiterated their support for reform of such entitlement programs.

As part of his pitch, Obama is proposing significant reductions in Medicare spending and for the first time is offering to tackle the rising cost of Social Security, according to people in both parties with knowledge of the proposal. The move marks a major shift for the White House and could present a direct challenge to Democratic lawmakers who have vowed to protect health and retirement benefits from the assault on government spending.

(Emphasis added)

My reaction to this news, along with most everyone else aligned with the left side of politics, was predictable. I was aghast, dumbfounded, sickened, and enraged. The Republican Party has been working hammer and tong to eliminate these vital programs since the day they were first conceived. Sometimes their efforts were out in the big wide open, such as George W. Bush's doomed privatization proposal. If it wasn't their hood ornament, it was at least always on the dashboard, right out front, a core element of their philosophy, and always somewhere in their platform. In all those years, however, the GOP had only managed to nibble at the edges of these programs, having never summoned either sufficient muscle or sufficient will to kill them off entirely.

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And now here is a Democratic president, after all those years of struggle to defend and protect the social contract created by these policies, offering them up for destruction because he can't seem to stop himself from agreeing with Republicans. Here is a Democratic president who happily accepts the premise of their devious arguments, and who appears unwilling to summon enough spine to rebuff the debt-ceiling-default tactic being deployed by the GOP in an act of national hostage-taking. Instead, hey, why not, let's rip these programs to shreds and fulfill the deepest, darkest fantasies of the far right.

The AARP, for their part, began sounding the war drums almost immediately:

AARP will not accept any cuts to Social Security as part of a deal to pay the nation's bills. Social Security did not cause the deficit, and it should not be cut to reduce a deficit it did not cause. As the President and Congress work to negotiate a deal to raise the debt ceiling, AARP urges all lawmakers to reject any proposals that would cut the benefits seniors have earned through a lifetime of hard work.

AARP is strongly opposed to any deficit reduction proposal that makes harmful cuts to vital Social Security and Medicare benefits. Social Security is currently the principal source of income for nearly two-thirds of older American households receiving benefits, and roughly one third of those households depend on Social Security benefits for nearly all (90 percent or more) of their income. The deficit debate is not the time or the place to talk about Social Security. AARP will fight any cuts that are proposed to this important program, including proposals to reduce the cost of living adjustment for beneficiaries (COLA)—such as the proposed chained CPI—which AARP also believes should not be considered as part of the debt ceiling or deficit reduction negotiations.

AARP also strongly urges the President and congressional leaders to reject any proposals that would impose arbitrary, harmful cuts to the Medicare program or shift additional costs onto Medicare beneficiaries. Half of all beneficiaries live on incomes of less than $22,000, and many already struggle to pay for their ever-rising health and prescription drug costs.

Some have proposed requiring Medicare beneficiaries to pay even more for their Medicare benefits, either through higher co-payments or higher premiums. AARP strongly urges you to reject higher costs for people in Medicare. Before we shift additional cost burdens onto beneficiaries, Congress should address the real problem of increasing health care costs throughout the entire system.

Throughout the deficit reduction and debt ceiling debate, AARP will continue its efforts to raise the voices of our members who depend on Social Security and Medicare for their health and economic security.

But, wait, hang on a minute, because out came the White House on Thursday afternoon with denials compounded by denials that they were ever considering cuts to Social Security and Medicare, that the news reports were way off-base and possibly politically motivated, and that this White House would never consent to any deal that “slashed” those programs.

That's the word they used: “slashed.”

But that's not the same as “cut,” now, is it?

“Slashed” brings to mind images of total evisceration. They could very well be planning to create deep cuts in the programs, then stand back and say “Well, we didn't slash them, now, did we?”

Paranoid? Maybe. But maybe not. The “chained CPI” idea mentioned by AARP in their statement is a sneaky piece of business indeed. Instead of the standard annual cost-of-living increases to Social Security (COLA), the chained CPI takes a much more austere look at what a cost-of-living increase should mean. In effect, replacing COLAs with this chained CPI would spell, for all practical purposes, the end of cost-of-living increases completely. For millions of people who live on the brink, who rely on Social Security to avoid living in cardboard boxes and eating cat food, that kind of loss could very well tip them right over into the ditch.

There is no deal on paper as of yet, and the whole world is watching. Many people I spoke to on this were blunt: if the Democrats consent to any deal that damages or denudes Social Security and Medicare, then that's it, hats over the windmill, and turn out the lights when you leave. Obama and his people can hope and change their way across the campaign trail until they are blue in the face. They will not be getting the votes of these people. This administration has made it clear on more than one occasion that they do not think too highly of their own base, and by acting like Republicans, perhaps they believe they will earn the votes of enough independents to offset the damage.

Maybe they will, and maybe they won't, but that is not the point.

This is a matter of honor, plain and simple. An ocean of blood, sweat and tears has been spent bringing these all-important programs to life, and even more has been spent protecting and defending them. If this president consents to throw all that over in an act of political triangulation, he will be marked in my book for all time as a failure, a betrayer, and a disgrace.

In my book, and in many other books besides.

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