Commentary

Democrats running on Social Security make Republicans look bad 

August 16, 2022 7:00 am
FDR memorial New Deal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt | Memorial Wikimedia Commons

Who would have guessed that the 2022 midterm elections would turn out to be a referendum on the New Deal?

Earlier this month U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh) suggested that Social Security and Medicare should no longer be guaranteed benefits. Instead, he said, they should be up for renegotiation every year when Congress haggles over discretionary budget items. “What we ought to be doing is we ought to turn everything into discretionary spending,” Johnson said, “so it’s all evaluated — so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken.”

Those are alarming words for a lot of people who are counting on having those benefits when they retire. And they are especially alarming coming from Johnson, who has previously called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and voted in favor of deep cuts to Medicare.

His position on those programs not only puts him at odds with his Democratic challenger Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, but also far from most voters, who by large majorities favor not only protecting existing health care and retirement benefits, but also expanding them through the Democrats’ budget reconciliation deal.

As President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats do a victory lap this week after passing their big climate, tax and health bill just before the August recess, many of them are plugging the Inflation Reduction Act provision that finally allows the federal government to negotiate prescription drug prices through Medicare, keeping down out-of-pocket costs for seniors. They are crowing about ambitious climate provisions that aim to reduce emissions 40% by 2030 and invest in green energy and the fact that funding for those programs comes from closing tax loopholes for corporations and the very rich.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth) met with Wisconsin reporters Monday to give an update on the news from Washington, touting a list of achievements that included the “three really giant bills” that passed Congress in the last session  — the American Rescue Plan Act, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and the Inflation Reduction Act — and contrasted it with Republican proposals that threaten Social Security and Medicare.

“We’ve seen several major Republican proposals, specifically out of the Senate, that would actually reduce people’s benefits and I think hurt those programs,” said Pocan.

Johnson’s suggestion that these huge federal entitlements be turned into discretionary spending programs is “an awful idea,” Pocan said.

“This is your money that you’ve paid into through Social Security and Medicare — you should not have this be something that’s eligible to be cut” in the annual budget process. But also, he added, in the event of a government shutdown, which has happened several times in recent years all discretionary spending programs grind to a halt. If Social Security and Medicare were discretionary budget items, “that would have a devastating impact on people.”

“It’s bad enough we have shutdowns,” Pocan said, “but we don’t need to shut down every senior, every person receiving Medicare in this country.

“We need to do everything we can to protect and strengthen Social Security and Medicare,” he added. “That’s something Democrats will get done rather than the proposals put out by Republicans, including our own senator.”

Pocan was on message. To mark the 87th anniversary of Social Security last Sunday, Aug. 14, Democrats have been fanning out around the country this week touting the benefits of the program and their plans to protect it. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held an event in her home district marking 

Social Security’s anniversary in which she praised the movement to oppose “rightwing attacks on our seniors.”

“I believe rebuilding the middle class is the moral obligation of our time – that’s why I’m so proud to celebrate Social Security’s birthday,” Biden tweeted. “It’s why me and my Democratic friends on the Hill are working to protect and expand it. Republicans in Congress want it sliced.”

Whether or not Republicans would get together behind legislation to slash the most popular government programs in history, Johnson really teed up the Democrats with his threatening talk. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher. But then, we’ve gotten used to scratching our heads over the things that come out of Johnson’s mouth. When he was pushed on the issue, he doubled down, defending his assertion that “we need to look at these programs” in order to save them.

Barnes, whose whole campaign is built around the idea of “rebuilding the middle class” is more in tune with the times. As Milwaukee’s Dan Shafer put it in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, the 35-year-old Barnes gives voice to the frustrations and aspirations of millennials, “the first generation in history positioned to be worse off than their parents,” and impatient with the go-slow approach on everything from the climate crisis to economic justice.

The privatize-everything, live-and-let-die approach of Johnson, is so 1990s. The country doesn’t seem to be in the mood for it now. Barnes sums up his opponent as saying “wacky stuff” — including, early in the pandemic, suggesting that there was no need to shut down business because “only” about 3.4% of the population would likely die, and that programs like unemployment insurance make people too lazy to work

It’s not just an age thing. Biden, who is more than twice Barnes’ age, is more in step with younger voters than Johnson, too.

Despite absorbing daily attacks, including from within his own party, for being too old and not achieving enough, Biden has managed to make good on many elements of his Build Back Better agenda. And his FDR-like, soothing tone is well suited to our extremely anxious times. As the midterms near, the Democrats have a lot to run on — getting shots in arms, making major investments in infrastructure and education, and, with their latest legislative victories, finally pulling together a left-center coalition to expand health care access, address climate change, and collect more taxes from the very rich.

Asked if Biden was a liability to Democrats running in the midterm elections, Pocan noted accurately, at his Monday press conference, “if you actually look at what he’s done, it’s been very substantial.”

Republicans will keep running on gas prices and inflation, which are global economic problems Biden didn’t create. But “I think you’re gonna start seeing that tide turn,” Pocan said, “because when people really look at what we’ve done — you know, those things have all happened under Joe Biden’s watch. So I think his numbers will improve and, you know, I’m glad to campaign with him any time.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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