In a recent briefing with a small group of reporters and activists in Minneapolis, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) discussed the relentless right-wing attacks on Social Security and the need for a concerted strategy to counter them.
According to Senator Whitehouse, any and all the proposals that would undermine the program should be vigorously opposed and debated now before the Biden Group releases its July 1 report, expected to offer a trillion dollars in cuts. The senator was clear that a key GOP goal in the ongoing budget/public deficit negotiations is for Democrats to become complicit in weakening the program and so be vulnerable to attack on hugely popular Social Security. It is crucial, he argued, that there be not the single slightest crack in the Democratic dike containing attacks against the system.
Senator Whitehouse observed that Social Security ensures “the freedom and security of all Americans, not just seniors,” freedom from having to take care of elderly parents, from not having to choose between one's own savings and keeping parents alive, freedom to follow our own dreams and become masters of our own economic destiny.
“When,” he asked, after pointing out that the program has been hugely successful financially, running enormous surpluses the US government has borrowed, “did paying back American workers their own money become less important than paying back the Chinese?”
The senator observed that the last assault on Social Security during the Bush administration was halted in its tracks only with the help of web journalists and activists, who made it an issue, while the mainstream press remained firmly on the other side. Those who want to gut Social Security will never give up, the senator asserted: For the GOP, it is pure political calculation – they want the dollars to go to Wall Street so they can return to the GOP as campaign cash, but that desire is moderated by their fear of the political consequences with the general public, 80 percent of whom (and 90 percent of Democrats) consider Social Security a core value.
While “the power is not with the Republicans” on this issue, according to the senator, there is tremendous pressure – especially after Kathy Hochul's election in New York district 26 largely in reaction to the Ryan plans for Medicare – for Democrats to get their hands dirty by participating in some way in the impairment of the programs that have been the signature issues of the Democratic Party – particularly Medicare and Social Security. And while the president has said there will be no “slashing” of Social Security, that leaves room for all kinds of stealth tactics to undermine the program, including a decrease in the employer payroll tax, cuts in the (already rigged) cost-of-living adjustment, spending caps and automatic triggers – the single proposal the senator feels most threatens the program.
Consequently, Senators Whitehouse and Sanders (I-Vermont) have founded a caucus on Social Security, a core element of the infrastructure of the American Dream. This, they feel, has to be made a key issue for Democrats who have bought into the deficit/austerity mentality, allowed the debate to become co-opted and the terms to be set by the other side. Having the GOP – and its mainstream media mouthpiece – control the framing of the discourse is an immense liability, the senator suggested. The campaign targeting the American Association of Retired Person (AARP) used that organization as a proxy for the administration, although it was unclear to Senator Whitehouse at the time of the briefing how much damage had been done by the AARP's new stance.
In the face of the assembled group's general astonishment at Democratic concession to GOP framing and in response to Marcy Wheeler of Firedoglake's specific question about what “works” with other senators, Senator Whitehouse explained that there is a strong core desire in the Democratic caucus to protect Social Security, and that Senate hardening on Social Security hardens the White House. This basic attitude is in tension with many senators' perceived need to be seen to be part of the solution on the issues of debt and the deficit, the need for senators to be seen to compromise to move the country forward in order to maintain their appeal to independent voters. Asked which senators need the most encouragement not to defect, he responded, “The 'independent' Democrats.”
If an issue is seen by the public to be non-negotiable, then there is no electoral penalty for not negotiating on that issue, the senator noted. Senator Whitehouse agreed with Sara Robinson that Social Security and Medicare are foundational, signature, rock-bottom identifiers of the Democratic Party, and programs the public wants to keep. He explained the apparent willingness of some Democrats to compromise on issues, about which two-thirds of the American public stands with progressives, as to some extent an artifact of the echo chamber as well as clear poll results showing that Democrats and Independents want to see compromise on the budget and debt ceiling. The Obama administration and many Congresspeople feel they need to appear reasonable to Independent voters.
Nonetheless, what is truly needed, he suggested, is activation of the US public's latent support for uncompromising positions on Social Security and Medicare. He acknowledged that one of the things that irritates the public the most about Washington is when Democrats compromise on issues that should be absolutes. “There is one person who can activate everyone.” The Democrats should have “untouchable” “designated no-fly zones” and the Obama administration needs to demonstrate it is willing to stand and fight for something. Many people, he argued, would be attracted to someone who is visibly willing to fight for what he believes in.
In response to a question about why Democrats appear to accept the GOP premises about debt and the deficit and are not shouting from the rooftops that we have a “revenue” crisis, the senator explained that “revenue” has no resonance for the public. “Tax loopholes” resonates – with its suggestion that the only business is monkey business with the tax code. The public responds to the story of injustice, not to revenues, to the frame “get rid of cheats and loopholes.” Rather than signing on to the plans which the mainstream media have trumpeted as the only alternatives: cut benefits, raise the age of eligibility, or inject caps; the senator feels progressives must argue in favor of “scrapping the cap” (on wages subject to Social Security tax) and that “it's time for billionaires to pay their own way.”