“I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” President Bush said after the 2004 election. He used that capital to push for the privatization of Social Security. By the time the fight was over, after both Democrats and Republicans rebelled against his radical scheme, Bush had almost no political capital left. What should have been the high point of the Bush Presidency instead signaled the beginning of the end.
President Obama could soon be facing a similar moment if he decides to put significant cuts to Social Security and Medicare on the table as part of a deal with Republicans to raise the debt ceiling, as the Washington Post and New York Times are reporting. The president and Congressional leaders will meet again at 11 am today to discuss the issue.
Leaders of both parties have agreed that the debt ceiling must be raised to avoid a potential economic catastrophe. Yet the GOP has had the upper hand in this discussion from day one, insisting that any agreement—which everyone assumes is inevitable—includes massive spending cuts. Republicans know they made a huge mistake by voting for Paul Ryan’s radical budget plan, which led them to lose a special election in New York’s 26th Congressional district and could lead to many more GOP losses in November 2012. They’ve been begging the White House to give them a lifeline on Medicare. It seems they may get one and then some, with a Democratic president offering to cut two of the signature achievements of his party—not to mention two of the most popular government-run programs in the country—in the midst of a prolonged recession.
By agreeing to such a deal, Democrats would be neutralizing their best argument in the coming campaign, writes the New York Times:
The degree that any deal wins bipartisan support on slowing the growth of Medicare, for example, it would deprive Democrats of what has been one of their most potent arguments heading into 2012: their assertion that Republicans would gut the traditional Medicare system and leave older Americans vulnerable to rapidly rising health care costs.
According to the Times, here’s how the White House will attempt to sell the deal:
They argue that Democrats will be in stronger shape politically heading into November 2012 if they help enact a credible deficit reduction deal, allowing them to mount the argument that they protected Medicare from a much more drastic overhaul by Republicans.
That sounds eerily similar to the argument the White House made about its response to the economic crisis—it could’ve been so much worse! And look how that turned out in 2010.
The unemployment rate—not the size of the deficit—will determine the election results of 2012. You’d think that point would be self-evident by now. But for months Washington has been caught in what Greg Sargent calls a “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop,” obsessed with cutting spending but oblivious to creating jobs. These very spending cuts will not only be politically unpopular, they may also lead to more job losses—a negative double whammy for the White House.
That’s why many Democrats are eyeing this deal wearily. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told the Times:
“Depending on what they decide to recommend, they may not have Democrats. It is a risky thing for the White House to basically take the bet that we can be presented with something at the last minute and we will go for it.”
Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have both said that Social Security cuts should be off the table, as have members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Said Representative John Garamendi at the Capitol last month:
“You want a fight? If anybody in this building wants to take on Social Security—privatize it, change the benefits by altering the consumer price index or by any other method—know this: You’ve got a fight on your hands.”
Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus reiterated that message in a letter to the White House today. Sargent has an excerpt:
First, any cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be taken off the table. The individuals depending on these three programs deserve well-conceived improvements, not deep, ideologically driven cuts with harmful consequences. These cuts would hurt households and damage the country’s economic recovery as well.
Second, revenue increases must be a meaningful part of any agreement. Tax breaks benefiting the very richest Americans should be eliminated as part of this deal. Republican insistence on protecting these tax breaks will force middle-class families to shoulder the burden of even deeper budget cuts, and this is unacceptable.
Time’s Michael Crowley nicely summarized today why Democrats are angered by President Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling: he failed to use his leverage by extending the Bush tax cuts in December, he ineptly framed the debate and he caved to Republicans on the specifics (it wouldn’t be the first time).
This deal could easily fall apart due to Congressional resistance and blowback from the Democratic base. The White House’s latest “big idea” may very well be greeted as a giant thud.
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.