‘Harry, am I making this up?’ Yes, Mr. President, you are.
Democrats are trying to keep control of Congress by scaring the wig off grandma with a phantom GOP plot against Social Security. That is not news. Social Security scare tactics have been regular campaign themes since FDR. President Obama’s unique contribution is to do this even as he’s begging Republicans to help him reduce the deficit and reform entitlement spending.
On the one hand, Mr. Obama has charged his deficit commission with crafting a bipartisan plan to restrain entitlements. “Everything’s on the table. That’s how this thing’s going to work,” he said when he created the commission in February. “We now have to, in a gradual way, reduce spending, particularly on those big ticket items” like Social Security, he later added in Racine, Wisconsin. “That’s going to be our project for the next couple years.”
Yet even as Mr. Obama beseeches Republicans, he and his political allies are playing the Social Security card for all it’s worth in this campaign season. This has all the earmarks of a political bait and switch designed to ambush Republicans if they’re gullible enough to believe his bipartisan pleas.
Mr. Obama personally teed up the campaign theme earlier this month when he celebrated Social Security’s 75th anniversary by claiming that “privatizing Social Security” is “a key part” of the Republican “legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall.” He went on to say that this plan, which does not in fact exist, is “wrong for America” and “I’ll fight with everything I’ve got to stop those who would gamble your Social Security on Wall Street. Because you shouldn’t be worried that a sudden downturn in the stock market will put all you’ve worked so hard for—all you’ve earned—at risk.”
The President’s speechwriters missed an opportunity to invoke boll weevils and Tom Joad, though they did find room for a paean to partisan comity. In an echt-Obama touch, he added that “I’m committed to working with anyone, Democrat or Republican, who wants to strengthen Social Security.”
Democratic House campaign chief Chris Van Hollen did it again last week at the National Press Club, discovering “a plan that would steer, by the way, billions and billions of dollars of American Social Security retirement savings to Wall Street.” Also by the way, this plan would “abolish Medicare in its current form” and “throw seniors to the whims of the uncontrolled costs of the private-insurance market.”
This Obama-Van Hollen line of attack is figuring in races across the country, and union groups are spending heavily to give it a political impact, the facts notwithstanding. Earlier this summer the Strengthen Social Security Coalition magically emerged, its backers a roll-call of the progressive left: the AFL-CIO, SEIU, American Federation of Teachers, MoveOn.org, Campaign for America’s Future, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
In Nevada, Harry Reid & Co. are inundating the airwaves with claims that Republican challenger Sharon Angle favors cutting off Social Security checks. Mr. Obama showed up at a Las Vegas fund-raiser to chime in that “she wants to phase out and privatize Social Security and Medicare. Phase out and privatize them. . . . I’m not making this up. Harry, am I making this up?”
Cognitive dissonance evidently does not afflict this President. Not long after this Socratic dialogue with Harry, at a recent event in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Obama explained that “what we’ve done is we’ve created a fiscal commission of Democrats and Republicans to come up with what would be the best combination to help stabilize Social Security for not just this generation, but the next generation. I’m absolutely convinced it can be done.”
This campaign strategy won’t stop huge Democratic losses in a year when the economy is the dominant issue, but it surely will reinforce Republican fears that the deficit commission is nothing but a political trap. Mr. Obama wants the GOP to support entitlement reforms in exchange for tax increases, but when they do he’ll pocket the revenue and slam the GOP for the entitlement “cuts.”
The irony is that the fiscal condition of Social Security could be substantially improved simply by readjusting its actuarial formulas to slow the growth rate of benefits. But Republicans are unlikely to sign on even to that if they’re going to be demonized for such a modest “cut” anyway, much less endorse a reform like raising the future retirement age. Mr. Obama says he wants to cut a deal, but encouraging Democrats this year to box themselves in against any change will make serious reforms that much harder next year.
The President’s bad faith is all the more notable because Social Security is less a GOP reform priority than it should be. Republicans never even brought President Bush’s private account plan to the floor in 2005. To the extent these attacks have any basis in reality, they’re targeting Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s “roadmap”—even as Mr. Obama praises him for being serious about the fiscal crisis and knows he’s a member of the deficit commission.
This Social Security ploy perfectly illustrates the Obama political method: Bipolar rhetoric that lurches between partisan distortion and bipartisan entreaties—all the while governing hard to the left with Democrats in Congress running the show.
Editorial, Wall Street Journal