Monday, August 8, 2022

More on the politics of protecting Social Security -- the Washington Post weighs in

A couple of weeks ago, I finally ran a post questioning the apparent conventional wisdom among progressive politicians and pundits about not making Republican attacks on Social Security a major campaign issue.

Fast forward to 2022. Republicans are talking about cutting, privatizing, or killing Social Security with an openness they hadn't shown in at least twenty years. Trump himself lost interest in the topic long ago. But among the pundit class and much of the Democratic establishment, a few six-year old statements had permanently inoculated not just Trump, but the entire GOP on this issue.

What's remarkable here is not just the convergence but the certainty. A large part of the Republican Party is pissing on the third rail of American politics and yet no influential Democrats thought it was worth pulling the switch just in case the power was on.

If attacks on Social Security have eroded seniors' support for the GOP, they have done so almost entirely on their own. Progressives seldom mention the issue. AARP has been uncharacteristically quiet on the matter. Talking Points Memo, probably the best progressive political news and analysis site has dropped it entirely as far as I can tell.


Even in Florida, which has a lot of seniors, Val Demings is all but silent on the topic, despite the fact that her opponent and his fellow senator are both on the record as wanting to cut or kill the program.

There's no conspiracy here, no hidden agenda. These people simply believe with a great deal of confidence that while pushing back against Republican attacks on Medicare and particularly Social Security might be the right thing to do, it is not a winning political strategy.

If there were any doubt in the Democratic establishment's mind, hedging the bet would be cheap, easy and pretty much risk free. A few campaign ads, some viral videos, a couple of lines in stump speeches, a bullet point in campaign websites,  raising the subject in interviews.

The most bizarre part of this is that for decades, one of the unassailable truths of American politics was that attacking Social Security and Medicare was bad for Republicans and defending them was good for Democrats, and yet, in the space of a few years for no particularly good reason, the political establishment became absolutely certain of the exact opposite.

 Shortly afterwards, David Weakliem dug into the question and backed things up with some actual data.

In most presidential elections starting in 1984, there were questions about which candidate would be better on Social Security.  They were not all by the same organization, so the wording varied.  Most of the variations were minor (e. g.  "handling" vs. "dealing with"), but in 1988 and 1992 they asked about "protecting the Social Security system" and in 2016 they asked about "Social Security and Medicare."   I calculated the difference between the percent naming the Democratic candidate and the percent naming the Republican.  The Democrat was always ahead, which is why I call the figure "Republican disadvantage."

In 2016, Trump trailed Clinton by 50-42%, giving an 8% gap, which was just about average--unfortunately the question wasn't asked in 2020.   Reagan in 1984 stands out as an unusually large gap, which is plausible because in one of his Presidential campaigns (I think it was his first, in 1976) he suggested that maybe Social Security should be privatized and got a lot of negative publicity.     Aside from that, there's no trend, and the ups and downs don't show any obvious pattern and are small enough so that they could be sampling error.  So there's not evidence that Trump changed anything--the Democrats consistently have an advantage on the issue.   This isn't really surprising--even someone who doesn't pay much attention to politics can tell that if forced to make a choice between tax increases and spending cuts, Republicans would be more likely to go for spending cuts and Democrats would be more likely to go for tax increases.

 Now it appears things may be shifting. Outside of the NYT, there is no bastion of conventional wisdom more recognized than the Washington Post, so when columnist Helaine Olen argues that "Republicans ... are  ... handing Democrats an issue almost as politically potent as abortion rights," the establishment is likely to listen.

The most recent to join the fray is Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). He announced earlier this week that he believes Social Security should be up for a congressional reauthorization vote every single year. “If you qualify for an entitlement, you get it no matter what the cost,” he huffed on a podcast.

The nerve of those entitled seniors. They paid faithfully into a program and expect a check. Imagine that!

This ups the ante from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who opened the Social Security floodgates earlier this year when he proposed putting all government programs — including Social Security and Medicare — up for renewal every five years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) immediately declared it dead on arrival, but that hasn’t stopped some Republicans such as Johnson from expressing their approval.


It’s almost as though these Republicans can’t stop themselves from acting on the hope that when it comes to Social Security, the majority of voters won’t take them seriously, even as the GOP base laps their message up. But, in an age when increasing numbers of Americans are going to need a Social Security check to get by in retirement, that seems like a risky bet.

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