Lesson From Special Election: Run on Social Security, Medicare and Lower Drug Prices

"With that economic message, Lamb just won in a congressional district that Donald Trump won by nearly 20 points." (Photo: Courtesy of AFGE, Flickr | CC 2.0)

Lesson From Special Election: Run on Social Security, Medicare and Lower Drug Prices

The roadmap to victory.

Though you wouldn't know it from the media coverage, Democrat Conor Lamb -- the upset victor in the most recent congressional special election -- strongly supports expanding, not cutting, Social Security and Medicare. He is also a strong proponent of using the power of the federal government to lower drug prices.

With that economic message, Lamb just won in a congressional district that Donald Trump won by nearly 20 points. For the last few election cycles, Democrats didn't even run a candidate in the district. In a futile effort to make lemonade out of lemons, Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) claimed that Lamb ran as a Republican. But, he did not. He ran as a New Deal Democrat, proudly advocating for Social Security and Medicare and against high drug prices.

Lamb ran powerful ads contrasting his support for Social Security and Medicare with Paul Ryan's plans to cut and ultimately destroy them. Though Lamb generally shunned campaigning with outsiders, he held a campaign event with Jon Bauman, who is president of the Social Security Works PAC.

Bauman played "Bowzer" in the hit television series Sha Na Na featuring a 1950s-style greaser band. Campaigning for Lamb, Bauman pointedly explained that, while he loved the music of the 1950s, he did not want to go back to the 1950s, a time when Medicare had not even been enacted and a third of seniors lived in poverty.

Lamb's victory speech was delivered in the middle of the night. Consequently, few people know that he astutely proclaimed, "We found that there is public support for programs like Social Security and Medicare that is nearly universal, because these programs are universal. They are America's way of saying 'we are all in this together.'"

As Lamb understood, as polarized as Americans are over many issues, they are nearly unanimous in their support for expanding Social Security and Medicare, and for lowering prescription drug prices. These are wedge issues for Democrats, issues where the Republican base agrees with Democrats more than with their own party's politicians.

In case anyone doubts this, new data from Public Policy Polling shows that a whopping 66 percent of the electorate are more likely to vote for candidates who support expanding Social Security. That percentage includes 56 percent of people who voted for Donald Trump, 78 percent of people who voted for Hillary Clinton, and 58 percent of people who voted for a third-party candidate or didn't vote.

The percentage of the electorate who are more likely to vote for candidates who support expanding Medicare is a similarly whopping 64 percent. And the percentage of those more likely to support candidates who want to use the power of the federal government to lower drug prices is an eye-popping 84 percent.

Virtually no one except for Republican politicians and their billionaire donors supports benefit cuts. During the 2016 presidential primary, opposition to cutting Social Security was the only issue that united supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and every candidate in between.

Democrats are poised for a blue wave at the polls this November, but it's not guaranteed. In a midterm election, where the electorate tends to trend older and more conservative, negative campaigning, even against someone as deeply immoral and unpopular as Donald Trump, only gets Democratic candidates so far. To ensure victory, Democrats should set forth a vision -- one that is broadly popular among the entire population.

Expanding Social Security and Medicare, while also keeping money in people's pockets by taking on the pharmaceutical industry's greed, is not only winning politics. It is also profoundly wise policy.

Expanding Social Security is a solution to a looming retirement income crisis and an eroding middle class. It is an antidote to corporate tax cuts and other policies that redistribute wealth upward.

Expanding Medicare is the solution to a broken health care system which costs more, covers fewer people, and has worse outcomes than other industrialized countries.

And exorbitant drug prices are both immoral and economically devastating, particularly to America's "always voters" - those approaching old age or already there.

Social Security and Medicare demonstrate the value of government. Both programs are more universal, sound, and efficient than any private sector counterparts. Federal action to lower drug prices similarly would demonstrate the value of government. Democrats advocating for these policies will not only win elections. By encouraging Republicans to vote Democratic, they can be the leading wedge in a progressive revolution.

For too many election cycles, Democrats, as well as Republicans, lamely argued for a "bipartisan solution" to Social Security. That meant voters, unable to differentiate between the candidates, voted on other issues.

In 2016, Democrats ran on expanding, not cutting, Social Security, but the position was neutralized by Trump's false promise to not cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Moreover, the media focus on emails, name-calling, and other diversions meant that the Democratic message was largely unheard.

It is a cliche to say that the upcoming election is the most important in history. But for supporters of Social Security and Medicare, this is true. Even in this election year, Republicans are announcing their plans to go after Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Indeed, Trump's budget included $1.8 trillion in cuts -- approximately the same amount as the increase in the deficit caused by their tax giveaway to wealthy donors and corporations.

If Republicans retain control of Congress, cuts to these vital programs will be hard to stop in 2019. The job of Democratic candidates must be to make sure that every single voter knows about the stark contrast between the parties on the issues of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump's never-ending circus of corruption will continue to suck up most of the news coverage and a lot of public attention. But, particularly in a year when Trump himself is not on the ballot, a unified Democratic message to expand Social Security, expand Medicare and lower drug prices can break through the chaos. It is the roadmap to victory.

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