Why We Should Fear – and Fight – An Entitlement-Cutting “Grand Bargain”

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Campaign for America's Future Blog

Why We Should Fear – and Fight – An Entitlement-Cutting “Grand Bargain”

It’s autumn, when a politician’s fancy turns to thoughts of a Grand Bargain.

Right now it looks as if the two sides are at an impasse. But President Obama’s “no negotiations” posture only applies to the debt ceiling, and his budget still includes the “chained CPI” cut to Social Security. The Republicans who are attempting to force a showdown over Obamacare are still railing against the programs they call “entitlements.”

They’re all looking for a face-saving deal, and Social Security and Medicare could very well become that deal’s Ground Zero.

Winter’s Boehner

Autumn. The leaves begin to turn. The birds get ready to fly south. And an unpopular, shapeshifting lobbying group that takes many names and forms – the “American Comeback Initiative,” The Can Kicks Back, AmericaSpeaks, and our favorite, Budgetball (“The Fountainhead Meets Deathrace 2000”) – renews its PR campaign against “entitlements” for the disabled and aging.

Or, as the rest of the nation knows them, Social Security and Medicare.

Like harbingers of a hard winter, anti-entitlement spokesmen Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles have returned to the nation’s capital. These constituentless advocates for a widely disliked set of policies were given their usual unwarranted level of press coverage. Somewhat messianically, Simpson told Politico that “we have to be in reserve” in case politicians “put their country at risk” – by failing to impose the destructive austerity policies favored by Bowles and Simpson’s backers.

“But don’t use our names,” adds Simpson, “because that might be too volatile. We’re both on the witness protection program now.”

Only the relentlessly narcissistic Simpson could claim to be “on the witness protection program” while giving an interview to Politico. And his talking points have been receiving equally widespread exposure. The catch phrases crafted by Simpson’s sponsors were used by John Boehner when he spoke about entitlements last month in Idaho. “I made up my mind that we weren’t going to kick the can down the road anymore,” he told the audience at a Boise, Idaho fundraiser.

It’s all part of a wider Washington offensive. As another recent Politico news item reported, “Fix the Debt is ramping back up its lobbying efforts as government funding fights become the topic du jour on Capitol Hill.” Politico listed a group of Republican and Democratic politicians who “met Monday with Maya MacGuineas, head of the campaign, and members of the group’s CEO council and small business members.”

Fix the Debt, which appears to share funding as well as staffing with other Peterson-funded groups, is a corporate CEOs’ club that actively lobbies against Medicare and Social Security while saying nothing about defense spending – a position that is not surprising, since the group is dominated by defense contractors who make billions from taxpayer-funded contracts.

Swindled!

Almost simultaneously, another organ of the anti-entitlement lobbying team was unrolling a new public relations effort called “Swindled.” It’s easy to laugh off this latest effort from an interlocking propaganda network whose funding comes largely from corporations and from right-wing anti-government crusader, and hedge fund billionaire, Pete Peterson. But there’s more at risk than meets the eye.

The temptation to scoff is amplified by a viewing of the campaign’s video, which combines the mendacity of Joe Isuzu with the visual sophistication of a 1950s educational film strip. Millennials aren’t likely to change their political views after viewing a series of retro-style cartoon visuals that might have been lifted from “Our Friend the Atom “or “Motoring Do’s and Don’ts.”

But young people, or voters in general, may no longer be the real target for campaigns like this one. After all, voters don’t have much of a say in what happens to their entitlements anymore. If they did, the electorate’s overwhelming support for these programs would have put an end to benefit-cut negotiations long ago.

The real audience for these campaigns may be frightened politicians who need reassurance that the right arguments can bring voters around someday. That way they can tell themselves that a vote against Social Security and/or Medicare won’t spell the end of their political career.

No Choice

The polls suggest otherwise. Americans across the political spectrum strongly support Social Security and Medicare, as numerous polling results attest. One recent study showed that most Americans believe Social Security’s benefits should be increased, not decreased, and were willing to pay more in taxes to fund those increases.

So politicians need reassurance that they can still be re-elected after voting to cut entitlement. The silly advertising campaigns may be designed to comfort them.

It will also help them feel secure if they know that their opponents are likely to face the same public anger they will if they vote to cut these programs. That’s where “bipartisanship” come in. If both political parties agree to a corporate- and billionaire-friendly agenda, neither has to face the electoral consequences of adopting unpopular and economically harmful positions.

That’s the thinking behind gatherings like Fix the Debt’s recent Washington soirees. This kind of “buy-partisanship” is designed to insulate politicians from blowback for acting against the public’s interests and desires by cutting Social Security and Medicare. But if that happens, both parties – especially the Democrats – will have to contend with a loss of enthusiasm from the base, and a drop in voter turnout that could cost them future elections.

The Democrats had lost considerable credibility on entitlements by 2010, including a 25-point plunge in confidence on the subject and a loss of trust in President Obama himself on the issue. That drop, driven by earlier “grand bargain” talk, may have been instrumental in their losing the House that year. They’ve restored some of that lost momentum, but appear poised to squander it again.

It Can’t Happen Here

But can they really come to a deal? Tea Party Republicans are demanding Obamacare’s repeal in return for a budget deal. The President says he’ll refuse to negotiate. Things look hopelessly gridlocked.

Look again. Boehner will want to give his party’s Tea Party wing something in return for dropping their futile Obamacare attacks, and entitlements would be the perfect prize. As for the president, in a terse conversation with Boehner on Friday he merely said “he wouldn’t negotiate with him on the debt limit,” according to Boehner’s office. The president and White House officials have consistently echoed the line taken last Sunday by presidential economic advisor Gene Sperling on a reporters’ call. “The President is not going to negotiate over the debt limit,” said Sperling. (emphasis ours)

That’s an argument about process, not content. When it comes to “entitlement” spending, the two sides’ positions are disturbingly close. The president’s budget still contains the “chained CPI” cut. Boehner has talked about cutting these programs for years. On the Senate side, Republican Rob Portman of Ohio called for cutting “the 65 percent of the budget that is not touched: entitlements.”

And Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said this: “If we found $700 billion in savings from entitlements — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — it would relieve pressure on the Pentagon and on non-mandatory spending. All the cuts they need are there to avoid a possible shutdown.”

The Deal

“I suspect that on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position.”

That’s what President Obama said about Mitt Romney in a presidential debate last year. He’s probably right.

When it comes to Medicare the two sides aren’t as close, but there’s still room for negotiation. Obama has long described Medicare’s costs as “unsustainable,” while saying little about the private-sector drivers underlying them. While he’s categorically rejected the GOP’s proposed dismantling of Medicare, he has already proposed reducing program benefits.

Both sides presumably wants a face-saving deal that each finds palatable. They’re most closely aligned on “entitlement cuts,” so an agreement to cut them is a very real possibility. It’s one we should fear – and resist. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (with which I am not affiliated) has a web page that helps voters tell their representatives they want benefits expanded, not cut. Now would be a good time to use it.

Richard Eskow

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a senior fellow at Campaign for America's Future.

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