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It is a well-known fact that President Obama wants a “grand bargain” with the Republicans , a deal that would reduce future deficits both by raising tax revenues and cutting spending, including on the so-called “entitlement programs”. He has offered this idea up repeatedly to Speaker Boehner and other Republican leaders in the 2011 debt ceiling talks and in the 2012 fiscal cliff debate, and media reports suggest that he is discussing the idea again with Republicans in the lead-up to the next perils of Pauline budget crisis in that is only a few weeks off.

Democrats in the progressive wing of the party (of which, full disclosure, I am a card carrying member) think the idea of cutting Social Security, Medicare, and/or Medicaid benefits is terrible public policy because senior citizens who can least afford it will be badly hurt, and we have been working hard to convince the President to back away from this offer. This may be difficult to do, though, as the President has some strong (wrong, in my judgment, but compelling to the President’s political and legislative team) political reasons for wanting to do this grand bargain. But the politics of this deal are very different for the rest of the party, and it may well be that progressives can win over a lot more of those Democrats than conventional wisdom currently expects.

The Obama team’s logic is that they are sick and tired, understandably, of Republicans wanting to make every single issue, every policy debate, about the deficit issue, and they don’t want our country to keep lurching from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis as Republicans continue to look for “leverage” to force more cuts. And the White House, to their credit, is eager to move on to other issues that will move the country forward, such as immigration reform and gun safety issues. They believe that if they can finally close the deal and get the grand bargain they have been searching for that they will be on strong political ground to be able to say regarding the deficit, “Hey, we've already done something big on that, it’s time to move on.”

Now I happen to believe their logic is wrong on the politics of the issue, as Republicans’ strongest political issue by far is the deficit, and they will never give it up- no matter what happens, they will keep demanding more and more cuts, and the deficit hawks in the media and well-funded groups like Fix The Debt will back them up. But even if you were to grant that the White House was right on the politics of this issue for them, for Democratic members of Congress the politics on this issue, the politics are completely different.

For starters, members of Congress are far more affected by what I call the intensity factor. Remember about 25 years ago when senior citizens surrounded Con. Rostenkowski’s car and started rocking it back and forth because of a bill they didn’t like on catastrophic health care? Think what seniors today might do if their Social Security benefits were cut. That kind of intensity drives bad media coverage back home, primary challenges, contributions to opponents- and it kills your contributors’ and volunteers’ and base voters’ enthusiasm levels.

The threat of a primary is not as great on the Democratic side as on the Republicans, as the progressive movement has less money and capacity in general to mount many successful primary challenges. In the last several cycles, there has usually been one major primary challenge (some successful, some not) to an incumbent from the left, and that isn't enough to strike fear into most Democrats’ hearts. The intensity factor, though, might change the dynamics on this, adding new money and volunteers to primary fights. Add to that the combination of progressive forces with older voters who have just had their Social Security cut, and incumbent Democrats might have something to worry about, especially in states like PA, OH, MI, WI, and IA with both large numbers of seniors and large numbers of union members.  

Beyond the primaries, though, the politics of cutting benefits is far worse for Democratic incumbents in an off year general election. Think about the demographics alone: in the past two Presidential elections, the percent of the electorate that came from voters 65 and over was 16%, whereas in the 2010 off-year election it jumped to 21%. And seniors have been one of the most volatile demographic groups in the electorate in recent years, and one not inclined to like Democrats very well: Democrats lost them by 8% in 2008, by a whopping 21% in 2010, and by 12% in 2012.

But seniors are far from the only worry with a bad vote on Social Security or Medicare. The voters that Democrats have to turn out in big numbers in an off-year are base voters. Base voters hate the idea of cutting Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, and a Democrat who had to defend that vote would be looking square in the face at a base voter constituency that was likely to be very depressed. I’ve lived through two off-year elections where Democratic base voters were unexcited about voting- 1994 and 2010- and I don’t relish living through that again.

What will be especially brutal in the off-year election for Democrats who believe they have cut a responsible bi-partisan deal that will protect them from Republican attacks is that the unaccountable outside groups with their millions of dollars in attack ads won’t hesitate to do brutal ads on them for cutting Social Security and Medicare, just as they did the last two elections attacking them for “cutting” Medicare. It won’t matter that the Republicans wanted to cut even more, or that the money for the ads comes from millionaires who would love to see these programs privatized: the attack dogs will not hesitate to make political hay off such a vote.

Beyond rank and file members of Congress, there is another major force in the Democratic party for whom a grand bargain is potentially deadly, and that is potential Presidential candidates. Try explaining your vote cutting Social Security to the heavily senior citizen and base activist dominated Iowa caucuses. Having been involved in 5 different Presidential campaigns, I feel pretty confident saying that it would be extremely tough to win a Democratic Presidential primary having supported cutting Social Security benefits.

Even if you grant that the politics of the grand bargain idea are good for President Obama, they are poison for Democrats in Congress who have to run again in 2014 and 2016. The President, who will never run for office again, may feel like his best political alternative is to ignore the wishes of both his base and the seniors who have never voted for him anyway on an issue like Social Security cuts. For the rest of the party, they had better take a close look at how this will affect their own political well-being.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Uncomplicated for Me (6+ / 0-)

    I just flat out will punish the party from top to bottom of the ballot if they cut Social Security or Medicare benefits.

    This is not an issue that is about primarying a single candidate because you didn't like his or her vote.  This is about what the party stand for or if it still stands with anyone or for anything any more.  

    I realize this view is far from "more and better Democrats" but if all the party is going to do is use those more and better Democrats to gut signature programs than we're just being used pure and simple.  

    My Dad always told me "you have to stand for something" and you don't do that by standing for anything and everything but sometimes you do have to take a stand.  Sometimes you do have to draw a line in the sand.   And to do that you also need to know where your line in the sand is?  Where is your line? Do you know?  We don't all have the same line but we should know how far we're going to allow ourselves to be pushed.

    I've drawn my line.  If I have to live in a country where they bully young men into suicide to protect corporate interests while letting bankers who brought the global economy to its knees off with nothing but zillion dollar bonuses then the least they can do is pay me my Social Security to STFU.  

    •  I'd go further (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      allenjo, greenbell, angel d

      Listening to Pelosi defend cutting Social Security (with a chained CPI) in Orwellian terms, as "making Social Security stronger," made me realize I may on the verge of not being a "Democrat" anymore.  And Pelosi is supposed to be representing San Francisco (which she is obviously not at this point) my home district.  

      So if the Party has moved SO far right that the Speaker from San Francisco thinks cutting SS is a "good" idea, then maybe there is little point in "electing more and better Democrats."  

      I think you're right about the immediate political implications.  Democrats WILL be punished for cutting SS in the next election.  

      The question is, will Republicans also be punished enough to change the balance in the House, since a Democratic President will have proposed it in the first place.  We may simply be witnessing the "new normal."  A "meaner" more conservative Democratic Party.  The final legacy of Barack Obama.

      •  Exactly, Pelosi, that's why I say punish the party (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        recontext, angel d

        When you have Pelosi on board for cutting Social Security benefits, it's not a question of trying to primary some blue dog in a swing state.  

        Oh, no.  We've got trouble right here in River City folks.  

        If the party is on board with these cuts, then they need to pay the price at the polls.  They need to hear that we reject their austerity budget.  

        I guess what I'm saying is a "vote of no confidence" needs to be the result.

      •  the new normal (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        recontext, angel d

        would mean that most of this country has no representation. we can take that lying down, or not.

        if necessary for years; if necessary, alone

        by SouthernLiberalinMD on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 01:26:00 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  I'm with you. (0+ / 0-)

      I hope labor is with us.

      I know they're fighting for Social Security, but will they have the guts to break from the Democrats?

      if necessary for years; if necessary, alone

      by SouthernLiberalinMD on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 01:25:03 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  A Grand Bargain would, almost certainly... (8+ / 0-)

    ...set the Democratic Party back one, if not two, generations.

    Using the word, "poison," in regards to what this would do to the Democratic Party, is spot-on!

    Thank you for this post!

    "I always thought if you worked hard enough and tried hard enough, things would work out. I was wrong." --Katharine Graham

    by bobswern on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 10:02:18 AM PST

  •  No Problem, There are Plenty of Private Sector (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tardis10, quill

    opportunities for Dems who do the cost effective thing and punish the base, seniors and the poor. Won't hurt their careers a bit.

    BTW the Republicans are already energizing their base for 2014, just as they were this month in 2009 for the 2010 race.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 10:16:18 AM PST

    •  What could energize Repub voters more than (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cynndara

      Dems cutting their Social Security or Medicare?

      As the hand writing is already on the wall that Dems will be blamed.

      So Repubs will gain voters and Dems will lose voters.

      But seniors are far from the only worry with a bad vote on Social Security or Medicare.

      The voters that Democrats have to turn out in big numbers in an off-year are base voters.

      Base voters hate the idea of cutting Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, and a Democrat who had to defend that vote would be looking square in the face at a base voter constituency that was likely to be very depressed.

      "Who are these men who really run this land? And why do they run it with such a thoughtless hand?" David Crosby

      by allenjo on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 01:16:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  'Grand Bargain'=suicide pill for Democrats. (6+ / 0-)

    There is a good reason why Mitch McConnell and John Boehner keep demanding that Obama come up with massive cuts to Federal spending in general (well, other than military) and Medicare/Social Security in particular.

    It's because these Republican lizards know damn well that the voters will severely punish anyone who throws granny off the cliff; hence their insistence that Obama give that wheelchair a shove. They don't want their fingerprints on this knife.

    And that's exactly why Obama should tell Republicans to take a long walk on a short pier. They want to eviscerate Social Security? Medicare? Then they have to pull the trigger themselves. If they have the votes, which they do not.

  •  I hope they do carefully consider (5+ / 0-)

    But I expect that in the end, perhaps after a courageous stand or two, they will fold like cheap lawn chairs, like they always do. Then they will sadly reap the "rewards" you have described.

    What I've noticed about politics is that when the chips are down, progressive politicians very frequently back away from their principals and act in ways that have terrible consequences to them and their constituents. I imagine this is due to peer pressure, pressure from the Party establishment, lesser-evilism, etc, but regardless, you have to take that tendency into account when looking at the upcoming "fight".

    I'd add that capitulation is not a sure outcome and it may be helpful at this time to remind our Democratic congress-members that there will be unpleasant consequences for caving in to the Grand Bargain.

    "I don't cry over milk spilled under bridges. I go make lemonade" - Bucky Katt

    by quill on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 10:48:12 AM PST

    •  Progressives who fold are called (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      quill, cynndara

      "too idealistic," while the more conservative position they adopt is always called "realistic."  

      "It was the best we could do," is always the mantra of losers on the left.

      •  And it's cooked (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        angel d

        They play this game where they let a few Progressives vote for or against whatever the establishment has decided will be the result and we're supposed to believe this is relevant.  No, the outcome is the only thing that matters.  

        I'm supposed to go vote for Franken if he votes not to cut Social Security when Klobuchar goes along with the austerity deal?  I'm supposed to be so stupid that I don't see the game there.  He's up for reelection so he can't vote against Social Security but Amy can.  Oh, no.  If Amy wants to help Al then Amy can vote against the austerity bill too.

        If the party cuts Social Security, the party needs to share the blame up and down the ballot.  If candidates fear that then they can speak up NOW and tell the party that the voters oppose this Grand Austerity deal.  

  •  He will be a savior (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    allenjo, cynndara

    Obama thinks he will be a savior of our economy by fixing the deficit 'problem' he yammers about all the time.

    I think Obama refused to release his college transcripts because he flunked Economics 101.

    With the Grand Bargain, we will all flunk our economic and political future along with him.

  •  The real problem is (5+ / 0-)

    that there are too many Democrats tied to Wall Street. I will never understand why this president and the Democrats refuse to call out the Republicans on 30+ years of their failed experiment in Supply Side Economics. Once you've done that, what do the Republicans have left?

    I'm no philosopher, I am no poet, I'm just trying to help you out - Gomez (from the song Hamoa Beach)

    by jhecht on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 12:38:53 PM PST

  •  OK, look (0+ / 0-)

    the Right Wing was still going after Jimmy Carter as recently as 2004, 24 years after he left politics.  These people don't stop attacking those they perceive as their enemies. Any Democrat who thinks they will let up on a talking point, especially one which has enabled them to win in the past, is crazy.

    That brings us to the notion of placating Republicans, an idea that President Obama apparently loves. The idea that you can convince Republicans to stop yammering by giving them what they want--or some of what they want--is equally nuts. They are the kings of moving the goalposts. Look at what happened when Romneycare became Obamacare. Or, if you're interested in history, look at what happened to cap-and-trade, which was the bipartisan, market-based, business-friendly answer to climate change policy.  Except that once cap and trade was developed and presented, the Republicans screamed that it was socialism.

    Or look at the recent fiscal cliff. they got 84% of the Bush tax cuts made permanent--and they screamed like it was the end of the world.

    You can't negotiate with these people. The only real power they've got is that they are completely unreasonable, and they intend to use that power to the fullest.

    if necessary for years; if necessary, alone

    by SouthernLiberalinMD on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 01:24:02 PM PST

  •  Well said. (0+ / 0-)

    I made this argument to Bruce Braley (D-IA 1) and he clearly is thinking about voting for cuts.  He is worried about other cuts to be caused by the sequester.  He did not specify which ones before a staffer dragged him away.

    •  They're all worried (0+ / 0-)

      about the Defense cuts.  They know that whether we actually need to spend that money for guns and bombs and killing fields or not, the Defense Lobby is powerful enough to make them all look like terrorist-loving traitors if they permit one dime in cutbacks.

      We need to kill the Grand Bargain.  The Sequester is actually the best way they've come up with to reduce spending since the Gramm-Rudman "across-the-board" cuts under Bush I.  Yes, they hit programs we all want and need.  But they cut Defense for real, and that's where the important cuts have GOT to be made, whether we want to reduce the deficit or not.  We HAVE to do something to control the MIC.

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