Last week's special election in New York's 26th Congressional district was a political earthquake, demonstrating that the American majority, even in the most Republican of districts, will reject a candidate who embraces cuts to Medicare benefits or major changes to that most popular program. And, since almost every Republican in the House -- and now the Senate -- has voted for such drastic changes, Democrats across the country are happily learning how they can campaign to win back the House and keep the Senate.
But we can't let Democrats undercut themselves again. Even as most of them practice their talking points about the Republican plan to dismantle Medicare, prominent beltway Democrats and Washington pundits are advising candidates that pressing their advantage on Medicare would not be the right thing to do. And others are urging Democrats to embrace policies -- like cutting Social Security benefits -- which would just as unpopular as dismantling Medicare and would confuse voters and undermine a winning message.
On May 25th, the day after Cong. Paul Ryan's budget was soundly trounced in NY-26, when all around the country progressives were celebrating, Ryan was warmly received at a Washington conference on the deficit, sponsored by Wall Street mogul, Peter Peterson. At that event, former President Bill Clinton declared from the stage that, while he opposed Ryan's plan for dismantling Medicare, he hoped that the NY-26 election didn't mean that Medicare would be untouchable this year -- a message he then delivered offstage directly to Rep. Ryan, the leader of the GOP plot to kill Medicare. And at that same Peterson event, Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling publicly declared the Administration's strong interest in cutting Social Security benefits -- either by raising the retirement age or by messing with Social Security's cost-of-living formula.
So here we go again. Democrats start to unite around a winning economic issue, but major leaders of their party, repeating the case made by Washington Post editorialists and many beltway think tankers, warn them not to go there -- that serious "adjustments" to Medicare (and Social Security) are inevitably necessary -- and that campaigning as the champions of these programs is irresponsible, because, while it might help Democrats win the next election, it would be bad for the country. Reducing America's deficits must be our priority, they solemnly declare, and these entitlement program must be cut.
This is horrible political advice that would deprive Democrats of a winning message.
But it is also bad policy advice. If Democrats side with the huge American majority who want a party that will protect and strengthen Medicare and Social Security, they shouldn't campaign with their fingers crossed behind their back. A new Democratic majority in the House can come back to Washington in 2013 and join a strengthened Senate majority in pursuing good public policy that can revive the economy and bring down the deficit -- while keeping their promise to protect the social contract.
There are plenty of serious economic proposals that accomplish those goals, without cutting or undermining Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, starting with CAF's Citizen Commission on Jobs and the Deficit and Representative Jan Schakowsky's Deficit Reduction Plan. And, while they didn't get the prominent visibility in an event designed to drum up panic on the deficit, the Peterson Deficit Summit actually featured plans from the progressive Economic Policy Institute and the Roosevelt Campus Network, both of which achieve reasonable budget balance while investing in growth and without doing stupid damage to our increasingly popular social safety net. (The Progressive Caucus Budget Plan also accomplishes the same goals.)
Apparently Bill Clinton agrees with Republicans that Medicare benefits have to be cut. What the various progressive plans have in common is the recognition of a simple fact: the growing costs of entitlements are driven by spiraling health care inflation in the larger economy. Medicare and Medicaid actually have a better cost control track record than the health care system as a whole. And all these "progressive" deficit reduction plans repeat the truth that seemingly eludes Gene Sperling: Social Security has its own source of revenue and does not contribute a dime to the deficit. Now the policy implications of these insights are not easy, but they can be politically popular. In addition to attacking the immediate causes of deficits by reversing the Bush tax cuts for the rich, ending at least two wars, cutting obsolete military spending , and regulating the banks -- all popular with the American majority -- we are going to have to go after the driving forces in the American health care system: the complex of insurance companies, drug cartels, hospital and doctor syndicates, and the food-chemical industrial complex, all of which make Americans unhealthier, while driving up the cost of health care far above the Medicare trend line.
So Democrats have a choice: they can follow the advice of Bill Clinton, Alice Rivlin, and the Washington Post editorial board and give up on making the 2012 election a referendum on the very popular idea that we should protect and strengthen Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. Or we they can fight like hell for these programs the American majority strongly supports, win that election, and come back to Washington ready to create jobs, stimulate healthy economic growth, and bring down deficits through healthy growth, new revenues, and good public policy designed to control overall health care costs. There is no doubt which is the best political strategy. It also happens to be better policy.
NOTE: One of the things that encouraged Democrats like Kathy Hochul to fight and win on Medicare is the strong speech President Obama made on April 13 declaring he would fight to protect Medicare. Because of that speech, the protests at Republican town meetings during Congressional recesses allowed Dems to stand up and fight. But we didn't know what Obama was going to say until he gave the speech. So BEFORE the speech, we mobilized: we and other groups like MoveOn generated thousands of emails and phone calls to the White House. As you can see from this pdf of press coverage, even Nancy Pelosi was moved to call Obama by our email alert. The President should give us advance warning, especially when he's going to do something progressive. But we have to work together to push the President - and his party - in the right direction.