A President at the Crossroads (Who Needs a Little Help From His Friends)

Tomorrow the deficit commission votes on its draft proposal. That proposal will not "pass," according to the charter that created the commission. But if it gets enough yes votes, it's likely to trigger a chain of events that will cost the president and his party dearly. The outcome could define this presidency for generations, while imposing needless hardship on millions of Americans. A handful of Democrats are the president's -- and the country's -- last line of defense.

Friends of the White House are in the uncomfortable position of having to save the administration from itself. For anyone who has the president's ear, that means giving him some straight talk about the political and economic realities that make this proposal so unwise. For commission members like Sen. Dick Durbin, that also means voting against the proposal. If they do, they'll be helping millions of seniors -- and possibly rescuing the administration's political fortunes.

The Democrats on the commission are undoubtedly under enormous pressure to vote "yes," and it's very possible that some of that pressure is coming from the White House. Whatever the administration's behind-the-scenes position, however, its allies must protect it from the price it will pay for endorsing the commission's GOP-backed ideas.

Going Rogue

This is, at least in part, a self-created problem. The president appointed the commission's co-chairs. He knew he was getting two long-time opponents of Social Security who intended to cut its benefits, despite the firewall between Social Security and the overall deficit. But he couldn't have known that their public remarks and behavior would be so extreme and intemperate. (Simpson has offended so many groups of ordinary Americans that he must be the envy of cable-television shock comics everywhere.)

Nor could he have known that they'd ignore the instructions in their own charter, miss their deadline, or decide to "issue a report" that's technically unofficial and invalid. (They probably won't get the number of votes required by the executive order that established the commission, and their proposal was due by December 1.)

A Right-wing Agenda

Most importantly, the president may not have realized just how far-right the commission proposal would become (although there were certainly warning signs in the co-chairs' past positions, and that of economist Alice Rivlin). And it is extreme: Those who still doubt that, despite our arguments and those of others, need look no further than today's televised remarks by Republican Senators Crapo and Coburn.

Sen. Coburn claims the plan follows the "Pledge for America" created by the far-right Club for Growth. That plan slashes taxes and radically downsizes government (an institution to which the Club for Growth unremittingly hostile). "We're at about 92% tax reduction versus tax increase," said Coburn. "If you score that dynamically," he added, "we're gonna get more tax reduction that tax increase." (That's certainly true for wealthy Americans, and appears to be decidedly untrue for the middle-class -- they'll lose big in this proposal, especially on lost deductions and cuts in Social Security.)

"This tax plan," said Sen. Coburn, "is Reagan on steroids."

Eve of Destruction

Despite the right-wing ideology behind the proposal, despite the bizarre inversion of goals that leads a "deficit commission" to cut revenue (in some areas - overall it increases revenue), and despite the co-chairs' mismanagement and public outbursts, reports indicate that the president is inclined to include many of its recommendations in his next budget. The administration has been determined to make cost-cutting proposals that affect Social Security, for a long time, according to all indications.

If the president moves to cut Social Security -- whether it's by cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, or both -- it would be catastrophic: for his presidency, for his party, and for the nation. Every "yes" vote on the commission tomorrow make it more likely he'll do so.

How disastrous would that course of action be? A recent poll the depth of emotion on the issue: Seven out of ten voters opposes cutting Social Security to fix the deficit, including 76% of Tea Party members, and would be more likely to vote against politicians who did so. Nuances about compromise or "saving Social Security for its own good" will be lost on voters, who would prefer by large margins to raise taxes on the wealthy instead.

Make no mistake: These cuts will be laid at the feet of President Obama and any Democrat who supports them. There will be no passing the buck.

A Time to Act

Dick Durbin has a long record of standing up for Social Security. That's why it was profoundly disappointing to hear him say yesterday that he would favor the proposal's plan to raise the retirement age to 69. The idea is "hardly radical," said Durbin.

As with many such statements, Durbin's remark came with the obligatory dismissal of "hysteria on the left." Yet a majority of Republicans oppose the kind of Social Security benefit cut Durbin's now endorsing. Any savvy politician should embrace a position that's so popular with both the left and the right, rather than vote against it.

Sen. Durbin has always been on the right side of this issue. As recently as late October, he said he was opposed to raising the retirement age, adding: ""It's tough to say just stick around and deliver mail for another couple of years, be a waitress for another couple of years." Sen. Durbin mentioned the "hardship" exemption to the increased retirement age, perhaps to blunt criticism, but we won't even know for ten years whether those occupations will qualify for an exemption. The commission proposal defers that decision, and offers little guidance on which high-stress and high-demand occupations should be exempted.

Most importantly, raising the retirement age isn't necessary. Nor are any other benefit cuts. Sen. Durbin's campaign website provides an good overview of the issue, and lists only one policy prescription: "Requiring higher-income individuals to contribute more to Social
 Security should be considered as an option," it says. That would be enough to restore Social Security to long-term fiscal balance.

We can only assume that Sen. Durbin must be under enormous pressure, but it's pressure he should resist.

Positive Momentum

Fortunately, there's momentum in the right direction. Deficit Commissioner Andy Stern released a proposal that avoids Social Security cuts while achieving the same balance as other proposals. The Stern plan now joins the EPI/Demos proposal, that of fellow Commissioner Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and our own Citizens' Commission plan. Sen. Durbin and the other Democrats on the Commission should look to the economic soundness of these proposals, as well as the clear wishes of the American people, when voting on the far-right Bowles/Simpson plan tomorrow.

Rational budget management, or "Reagan on steroids": Which will the president choose?

Cannons on the Right

The current Washington fashion is to adopt an air of scorn toward "ideologues on the left and right" on budget issues -- but voters on the left and right are united in their opposition to this proposal's key elements. The truly "bipartisan" position here is the one that's supported by most Democratic and Republican voters. This is not a question of ideology, but of reality -- both political and economic.

And however much the White House may want to avoid confrontation, the Republicans have made it clear that there will be confrontation no matter what they do. Mitch McConnell proved that again yesterday when he threatened to paralyze the Senate over taxes. Implementing the conservative policies in the deficit commission proposal won't end the war. It will only ensure that Democrats will take fire from both sides, and that their base will stay home on Election Day.

What a perfect outcome for Republicans: They get the unpopular policies they want, and the Democrats take the fall for them. They don't see Democrats as collaborators. They see them as cannon fodder.

Politics and Pragmatism

Whatever the Commission does tomorrow, it will have failed to execute its charter. But any "yes" vote will encourage the president and his party on the path of self-destruction. Anybody who wants to see them succeed politically should vote "no" for pragmatic reasons. And anyone who understand the hardships this proposal would impose on seniors should vote "no" for reasons of principle.

In this case, happily, principles and pragmatism are perfectly aligned. A "no" vote on the proposal is a "yes" vote for smart politics and good public policy. And it will be giving the Administration just what it needs right now: A little help from its friends.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at "rjeskow@ourfuture.org."