Why did Democrats lose on election night? Because not enough of them were fighting for big ideas. As Sen. Bernie Sanders says in the video at the top of the post, the American people are united in support of expanding Social Security, but too few candidates were talking about that big idea.
Social Security Works is shortly releasing new, in-depth exit polling that shows that the American people are united across party lines when it comes to Social Security. Here is a quick preview: Nationally, over 80 percent of people who voted last week said Social Security was important to them as a voting issue. And, more than three out of four people who voted said that if an elected official supported expanding Social Security they would be more likely to vote for them. No surprise, since a large segment of the American people are concerned about their ability to retire someday.
Democrats have historically been the party of Social Security and the champion of the middle class -- so what happened? For that simple answer we can turn to President Harry S. Truman in 1952:
"When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the Fair Deal, and says he really doesn't believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don't want a phony Democrat. If it's a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time."
Too much of the national Democratic brand has been, in President Truman's words, "a Republican in Democratic clothing" on the vital issue of the future of Social Security. Cheered on by the Third Way, Fix The Debt, and other Wall Street-funded lobbying organizations, as well as the Washington Post and other elite media, many Democrats followed the leadership of the administration, casting their lot with false-centrist Republican-lite policies and rhetoric regarding Social Security.
Following their party's lead, most Democratic candidates gave only vague promises of "protecting" Social Security, and opposing its privatization. But opposing privatization doesn't make you a Social Security champion. It just means you're not a fringe radical who wants to dismantle the most popular program in the country. That's a very low bar, and the American people can see it for the posturing it is. Moreover, Republican candidates muddied the water by running ads saying they were committed to "saving" Social Security for current seniors -- no matter that their policy proposals would do the opposite.
Making matters worse, many Democrats were convinced by the "Very Serious People" in Washington that they would be rewarded for supporting the "bipartisan" and "fiscally conservative" Bowles-Simpson plan, which cuts Social Security. In chasing this and other false dreams of so-called bipartisan budget compromise, many Democratic candidates went on record as favoring the Bowles-Simpson proposal, Social Security cuts and all -- statements that their Republican opponents were only too happy to use against them.
Karl Rove's big-money operation, Crossroads GPS, ran ads around the country attacking Democratic candidates for supporting a "controversial plan" that raises the retirement age, cuts the already meager cost of living adjustment, eviscerates benefits for younger workers, and, in short, radically transforms the program. Never mind that Rove and other Republicans once criticized President Obama for insufficient enthusiasm over Bowles-Simpson. They were more than happy to obfuscate their own party's support for cutting and privatizing Social Security by pointing out that some Democrats were willing to compromise their constituents' earned benefits.
Opportunists like Karl Rove make these hypocritical attacks because they know that there is nothing "centrist" about cutting Social Security. There is no large segment of the US population for which cutting Social Security is popular, left, center or right. As a recent write up of a Pew survey on increasing polarization in America put it, "Americans are divided on everything, except their love of Social Security."
Presented with two candidates who've supported cutting Social Security and who both mouth platitudes about "strengthening Social Security," is it any wonder many voters didn't know who to believe, or that 2014 saw the lowest voter turnout since World War II?
This post and our work in general are not about getting people elected to office, but the reality is that policy proposals to dismantle Social Security and sell it off brick by brick occur in a political landscape. It is our job to raise the voices of the American people so loud that no one in DC can ignore us. That is why we need to ensure that all policymakers in both parties take home the correct message from the 2014 midterms, and that message is, listen to the American people and fight for big ideas. Fight to expand Social Security.
Democrats missed a golden opportunity this election cycle by not running as a Party on a platform of expanding Social Security. Beginning today, the Democratic Party should loudly call for the expansion of Social Security and every Democratic candidate should run hard on it in 2016. It is the road to a brighter future, not only for Democratic candidates but, more importantly, for the American people.
The authors have a forthcoming book that explains why now is the time to expand Social Security, you can pre-order it now. "Social Security Works!: Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All," available from The New Press, January, 2015.