President Obama, you were a child when it happened, so it’s probably not surprising that you don’t know about it. But I want to make sure that you do, because, if what I’m hearing about your budget proposal tomorrow is true, you are stepping into a trap that was laid for you before you even smoked your first cigarette.
Back in the 1970s, after Richard Nixon went down in flames and, with him, the entire Republican Party, a Republican strategist named Jude Wanniski had an inspiration.
The Democrats, he said, had always been the party of Santa Claus. They gave the American people what they wanted. Social Security. Unemployment compensation. Medical help. The minimum wage. Free public education and inexpensive public hospitals. Unions. Environmental protections. Child labor laws. Workplace protections. Paid vacations and sick days.
Meanwhile, the Republicans had always been the party of Scrooge. They’d said, loudly, “No!” to every one of those things. Over and over again.
And the American people knew it, which is why the Republicans didn’t control the Congress for over 40 years, and a Democrat who was really good at playing Santa Claus – FDR – got elected four – count them, four! – times as president.
So, Jude said, Republicans have to figure out two things. First, they have to somehow become a Santa Claus.
And, second, and perhaps most important, they have to figure out a way to force the Democrats to shoot Santa Claus.
Becoming Santa Claus would be easy, Jude said. Just cut taxes and then borrow and spend money. Everybody loves tax cuts, and the average person wouldn’t realize that their tax cuts were tiny compared to those for the rich. Still, they were tax cuts, right? Santa Claus Republicans!
On the spending side, come up with things to spend a LOT of money FAST on. It’ll stimulate the economy. More Santa! Star Wars! Medicare Part D! Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq!
“But wait!” said some Republicans. “If we do that, we’ll end up with huge budget deficits!”
“That’s the genius of it,” Jude said. If Republicans can run up huge budget deficits, they can then, when a Democrat becomes president, force him to shoot the Democratic Santa by cutting programs. And, of course, the biggest of the Santa programs would be Social Security.
Republicans laughed at Jude. “No Democratic president would ever cut Social Security,” they said. First off, it’s separate from the rest of the budget so cutting it won’t help the budget. And, second, it’s the Democrats’ ultimate “Santa Claus” badge of honor!
“Ah,” said Jude. “If you make the deficits big enough, and you yell loud and long enough, some sucker of a Democratic President will come along and do it.”
When he published this back in the 1970s, everybody thought it was crazy. Except Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush – who actually put the policy into practice.
And, sure enough, they borrowed trillions, spent it like crazy, created the appearance of good times just like you could if you put a trillion on your credit card. And they created a huge deficit – the biggest in the history of America.
So when Clinton came in, they started demanding he shoot Santa. “Take out Social Security!” they demanded.
But Clinton was too smart for them. Instead, he just cut funds to poor people – who pretty much nobody notices – and “ended welfare as we know it.” No way was Clinton going to fall into Jude’s trap.
Bush W came along next, and went back to Jude’s playbook. Borrow and spent trillions! Drugs for Medicare, and the government can’t even negotiate discounts from the drug companies! Wars fought not by cheap soldiers but million-dollar-a-year “contractors,” who all worked for Bush family buddies or companies Poppy had invested in. Huge deficits, and not a single word about it. Instead, Bush told us to go shopping!
And then came Obama.
Again the Republicans who held Jude’s flame rolled out their demands: “Democrats must shoot Santa, particularly the biggest Democratic Santa of all – Social Security!” Most Democrats laughed at them. It was stupid. Social Security isn’t even adding to the budget deficit – in fact, it has a two trillion dollar surplus!
“But cut it anyway!” demanded the Republicans, knowing that if they could get the Democrats to shoot their biggest Santa, over 80 years of people’s faith in the party would be lost. This was a high-stakes game.
So now, President Obama, we hear that you may be thinking of shooting Santa Claus. If you do, you’ll be the first Democratic president to ever do it. And you may destroy the Democratic Party.
I know you loved Doris Kearns Goodwin and the movie “Lincoln.” But all that “compromise” was of a very different kind, in a very different time, with very different men. And, personally, I think Doris put a bit too much emphasis on it. It was a nice story, but Lincoln also knew how to be Santa Claus, and did so with the Land Grant Colleges and so many other things. He was the great fighter, not the great compromiser.
Please stop thinking you’re Lincoln. You’re not. And your political opponents aren’t Andrew Johnson or Thaddeus Stevens or Salmon Chase. Those men at least had integrity, and played politics out of conviction.
President Obama, please don’t shoot Santa Claus. When it comes to cutting Social Security with the Republican “Chained CPI,” please, as Nancy Reagan so famously said, “Just say, ‘No!’”