Monday, September 06, 2010

Can The Democrats Save Themselves From The Republicans? Maybe They Should Start By Saving Social Security From The Republicans


How's that bipartisan thing working out for you, Dems?

Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse wrote a potentially explosive issue in the Sunday Times, Democrats Plan Political Triage To Retain House. Why should that be explosive; trying to retain the House seems like a perfectly normal thing to do. Here's Webster's definition of "triage":

With the midterm campaign entering its final two months, Democrats acknowledged that several races could quickly move out of their reach, including re-election bids by Representatives Betsy Markey of Colorado, Tom Perriello of Virginia, Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio and Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland, whose districts were among the 55 Democrats won from Republicans in the last two election cycles.

Representatives John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, chairman of the Budget Committee, and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, who is seeking a 10th term, are among the senior Democrats who have appeared to gain little ground in the summer months in the toxic political environment. A sputtering economy and discontent with Washington have created a high sense of voter unease that has also put control of the Senate in question.

Pelosi's asking Democrats in safe seats to contribute to Democrats in tough races; Obama's doing more fundraisers around the country; and ineffectual consultants and media buyers are getting rich because panic-stricken incumbents have no idea how to connect to voters or strategize a reelection campaign. The DCCC leadership-- careerist climbers Chris Van Hollen and Debbie Wasserman Schultz-- are way beyond inept and worthless, and better described as toxic to Democratic chances to cling onto power. If they manage to hold on, it's only because Republican are worse.
While Democrats have all but given up hope that the political or economic climate will improve substantially before the election, they are not conceding control of the House. Several party leaders and strategists privately acknowledge that about 20 seats are already probably lost, but they believe they can build a fire wall around seats in the Northeast and in other pockets across the country where Republicans have nominated untested candidates.

The battle is boiling down to a question of mathematics and difficult decisions for Democrats. By the best-case Democratic calculation, party strategists believe that Republicans must beat about 35 sitting Democrats if the parties split 16 highly competitive open seats and Democrats win four of five Republican seats they see as within their reach in Delaware [Castle's abandoned seat], Florida [Putnam's abandoned seat], Hawaii [Djou], Illinois [Kirk's abandoned seat] and Louisiana [Cao].

I don't doubt that Zeleny and Hulse used every contact and every bit of reporting skill they collectively possess to find out about the triage. They failed. I can imagine that's not a topic even a notoriously loose-lipped egomaniac like Emanuel is going to talk about outside of a very closed environment. Democrats seem to think they they've benefited from Republican primary voters going for beyond-the-pale extremists in several races, like Jesse Kelly (the teabagger running against conservative Arizona Blue Dog Gabby Giffords who has her own problems after having demotivated Hispanic Democrats) and Raul Labrador (the teabagger nutcase who beat a more mainstream conservative, Vaughn Ward, in a very bitter primary with very unhealed wounds, and who now faces one of the most conservative Blue Dogs in the House, Walt Minnick. But to get the full flavor of what kinds of insanity the Republicans have inflicted on themselves-- and how that can help endangered Democrats-- let's look at a different race, the one for the North Carolina seat currently held by freshman Larry Kissell.

Kissell originally won in 2008 after 4 years of campaigning as a grassroots populist. He almost immediately bought into the DCCC line that he would have to abandon any pretentious of being either a grassroots candidate or a populist if he were to win reelection in two years and he took a hard swing right and disillusioned his loyal supporters who helped him beat a powerful incumbent. It should be an easy seat for the GOP to take back. Kissell comes off as a putz with no values-- and no dedicated base behind him. But the Republicans have managed to make a mess of the opportunity. The primary runoff between hapless sportscaster Harold Johnson and Glenn Beck neo-fascist Tim D'Annunzio was so bitter it tore the local party apart. Johnson won but in a way that turned off local GOP and tea party activists and with a Libertarian in the general election the GOP will probably not be able to dislodge the worthless Kissell.
All five Republicans in North Carolina's congressional delegation endorsed Johnson after state Chairman Tom Fetzer called D'Annunzio "unfit for public office at any level." And last week House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and other top GOP lawmakers hosted a Capitol Hill fundraiser for Johnson.

D'Annunzio ran against the establishment. He sent out an Election Day e-mail telling supporters about rumors of "the NCGOP hijacking this election" by installing Johnson as the nominee even if D'Annunzio were to win.

"I'm very glad that Harold won," Fetzer said Tuesday night. "The 8th will be one of the top battleground seats in the country. ... Most of Mr. D'Annunzio's troubles were self-inflicted."

Polls - including D'Annunzio's own - showed Johnson leading by double digits in the campaign's final days. Last week D'Annunzio told the Observer it would "take a miracle" for him to win.

D'Annunzio made headlines by raising money at "machine-gun socials." But only two House candidates in the country invested more in their own race. He gave his campaign more than $1.3 million, including $25,000 last Friday.

Johnson gave his campaign nearly $300,000.

They used the money to finance an aggressive and bitter media campaign.

One Johnson ad highlighted D'Annunzio's "history of drug use and time in prison," an allusion to his opponent's past legal problems.

Court documents from 1995 detailed D'Annunzio's earlier arrests and episodes of violence and drugs. A judge called him a "self-described religious zealot" who once called the government the "Anti-Christ."

Johnson's ad prompted D'Annunzio to file a defamation suit. D'Annunzio then used that suit as the basis for ads that said, "According to court documents, Harold Johnson BROKE N.C. election laws."
D'Annunzio railed against the media as well.

Last week he told WBT host Keith Larson that "there's a special place in hell for people like you" after accusing Larson of narrating a Johnson ad.

A profile in Sunday's Fayetteville Observer quoted him telling the reporter, "I know your type. I don't need to know you personally because I know you. I think you are the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low, the vilest of the vile."

Johnson entered the six-way primary field late and didn't even move into the district until January, when he traded his longtime home in Statesville for a Concord condo.

But he clearly benefited from his years on WSOC-TV, whose signal reaches as far east as Rockingham, covering more than 70 percent of 8th District voters.

D'Annunzio questioned Johnson's grasp of issues, but chose to cancel the runoff's lone debate, blaming what he called collaboration between the Johnson campaign and the media.

The GOP had been trying to get former seven-term Charlotte Mayor Patrick McCrory to run and they don't take Johnson seriously; all they cared about was keeping D'Annunzio, with a long criminal record and shocking drug abuse problems-- but who finished first in the primary-- from becoming the official party nominee in the runoff. They're not likely to spend a dime on Johnson's general election campaign. Kissell, who was able to leverage grassroots enthusiasm for his populist promises (as well as Obama's formidable coattails) when Robin Hayes outspent him 3-1 in 2008, hasn't raised much money this year and will be completely dependent on the goodwill of the DCCC. He's raised $704,115 and has $292,993 on hand. Johnson raised $481,537 and has $81,730 on hand. In 2006, 74% ($578,543) of Kissell's contributions came from the grassroots and in 2008 59% ($888,387) was grassroots money. This year only 25% ($177,299) has come from the grassroots and the rest is coming from PACs, some labor but mostly business. His vote against the healthcare reform bill has turned off the Democratic base and will discourage small donors and-- more important-- turnout. As I said, only Republicans can save Democrats like Larry Kissell.

Another Democrat mentioned by Hulse and Zeleny was Betsy Markey. I recall a friend of mine in Congress-- defending her vote against healthcare reform-- telling me the DCCC forced her to vote against it and that she wept when she voted no. Did they also force her to join the Blue Dogs? And did they force her to run up one of the most reactionary voting records of any freshman Democrat? They may have-- but since her election she's voted far to the right of her district (-23.33 according to the ProgressivePunch tilt score). Why should the Democratic base care if she wins or loses? Keeping the Democrats in charge of the House is supposed to be the answer. That's pretty abstract and removed from voters back home-- especially when "Democrats" are being seen by some voters as almost as bad as Republicans.

Of the freshman Zeleny and Hulse speculate may be the victims of triage-- Markey, Tom Perriello, Mary Jo Kilroy, Frank Kratovil and Patrick Murphy, only Kilroy has been a remotely progressive voter. Is Van Hollen actually ready to abandon her for a two-faced banking lobbyist after she's poured her heart and soul into doing what’s right in Congress? Mary Jo Kilroy’s hands are all over Wall Street Reform. She authored numerous provisions, was one of two freshmen who served on the Conference Committee and worked hard behind the scenes to stand up to Dodd and others who tried to weaken the bill. Her opponent is going to vote to repeal the law, and lets not forget, this is a guy who spent his entire career tearing down regulations on banks and investment firms, allowing them to become too big to fail, and allowing them to gamble away people’s homes and retirement investments. He is one of John Boehner’s protégés and will be one of his most dedicated lieutenants. Mary Jo, unlike most of the Members the DCCC is trying to save, was a strong supporter of the public option, of cap and trade, is vocal on repealing the Bush Tax Cuts on the richest 2% of Americans and has signed on to the Grijalva letter to stop the cat food commission from proposing social security cuts. The fact that the DCCC would suddenly decide that her D+1 district isn’t worth saving, that Mary Jo Kilroy isn’t worth saving, is frankly a spit in the eye of everyone who worked so hard to build this majority in the first place.

The worst of the lot is Kratovil, whose ProgressivePunch score is a dismal 33.90, the 5th worst of any House Democrat. On important votes he's with the GOP much more than with the Democrats. Why should a Democrat bother to vote for him in November? They shouldn't; and Republicans have their own candidate. Kratovil's chances of winning reelection are negligible. His race is a rematch with far right loon Andy Harris; Kratovil has outraised him so far ($1,853,869 to $1,543,831) but 81% of Harris' money is coming from the grassroots and only 48% of Kratovil's is. In 2008-- when Kratovil beat Harris by less than 3,000 votes (out of over 350,000 cast)-- Harris had outraised him, again with 81% of his money coming from individuals, but at the time Kratovil was getting nearly 70% of his money from the grassroots as well. The grassroots despises him now, as well they should.

Yesterday Ezra Klein stumbled onto "what's wrong" with the Democratic base this year and why the headwind is so strong against so many Democrats. In his report on Social Security he demonstrates the bipartisan and toxic power of conservatism in his first paragraph: "But there is one thing that both parties increasingly seem to agree on: You should work longer." That isn't what Democratic voters want to hear-- basically that Social Security has to be made less attractive so that millionaires can have more tax breaks. Democrats advocating tax breaks for millionaires are going to lose in November-- and, regardless of DCCC and DSCC polls, they are going to lose big... every single one of them-- from a bungling and corrupt asshole like Suzanne Kosmas, who deserves to lose to a friend of mine... who doesn't. Wisely, Ezra has changed his position on raising the Social Security retirement age. I hope Democrats read his column yesterday:
Raising the Social Security retirement age has become as close to a consensus position as exists in American politics. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) supports it. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has said that "we could and should consider a higher retirement age." And for a while, I agreed with them, too. It seemed obvious: People live longer today, and so they should work later into life. But as I've looked at the issue, I've decided that I was wrong. So let me be the skunk at the party. We should leave the retirement age alone. In fact, we should leave Social Security alone-- unless we're making it more, rather than less, generous.

Social Security provides disability insurance and survivor's benefits, but when people talk about it, they tend to be referring to its role as a program that provides income support to retirees. The average monthly benefit of $1,170 replaces about 39 percent of the person's pre-retirement earnings. Over the next two decades, the "replacement rate" is slated to drop to 31 percent. That is less than in most developed countries-- the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks it 25 out of 30 member nations.

The system, in other words, is not that generous, and it's becoming less so every year. The age at which you can begin collecting full Social Security benefits is moving from 65 to 67, as part of a deal struck in the 1980s to ensure the system's solvency. And all this at a time when employers are getting rid of defined-benefit pensions, which means that most workers will have no guaranteed retirement income except for Social Security.

Which brings us to Social Security's financial "crisis." The issue isn't that Social Security is spending too much or that we're living too long. It's that we're not having enough children (or letting in enough immigrants). As Stephen C. Goss, the system's chief actuary, has written, Social Security projects an imbalance "because birth rates dropped from three to two children per woman." That means there are relatively fewer young people paying for the old people. "Importantly," Goss continues, "this shortfall is basically stable after 2035." In other words, we only have to fix Social Security once.

The size of that fix is significant, but not astonishing. Over the next 75 years, the shortfall will be equal to about 0.7 percent of gross domestic product. How much is 0.7 percent of GDP? To put that in perspective, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that it's about as much as George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich will cost over the same period. Saying we can afford those cuts-- which is the consensus Republican position-- but not Social Security's outlay is nonsensical. Coming up with 0.7 percent of GDP isn't a crisis. It's a question of priorities.

That doesn't mean that Social Security shouldn't be on the table when we look at how to balance the budget. Everything should be on the table. And Social Security is our single largest program-- though Medicare is projected to overtake it in the next couple of years. But if you really put everything on the table-- the health-care system, the tax code, military spending, farm subsidies, etc.-- then raising the retirement age or otherwise cutting Social Security stops looking so good.

Start with the basic rationale for raising the retirement age. As Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has argued, when Social Security was signed into law, the retirement age was 65 and life expectancy was 63. "The numbers added up pretty well back then," he said on Fox News. But that's misleading. That figure was driven by high infant mortality. If you were a white male who'd made it to age 60 in 1935, you could expect 15 more years going forward. If you're a white male who lives to 60 today, you can expect 20 more years going forward.

Moreover, those averages conceal a lot of inequality. In 1972, a 60-year-old male worker who made less than the median income had a life expectancy of 78 years. By 2001, he had a life expectancy of 80 years. Meanwhile, workers in the top half of the income distribution shot to 85 years from 79. Insofar as the argument for raising the retirement age is that "Social Security beneficiaries live a lot longer today than they did in 1935," it should be restated as: "Social Security beneficiaries tend to live somewhat longer today than they did in 1935, and that's much more true of rich beneficiaries than poor beneficiaries."

And so what? Lurking beneath this conversation is an unquestioned assumption: We live longer, so we should work longer. That's pretty intuitive to members of Congress, who seem to like their jobs and don't seem to like the idea of retiring. It's also pretty intuitive to blogger/columnists, who spend their time in air-conditioned rooms opining about pension programs. But most people don't work in Congress or in the media. They work on their feet. They strain their backs. They're bored silly at the end of the day. By the time they're in their 60s, they want to retire.

You see that reflected in Social Security. Age 66 is when you get full benefits. But most people begin taking Social Security at age 62. They get less, but they can retire earlier. To them, the trade-off is worth it. And remember, the country is much richer than it was in 1935. Adjusting for inflation, our gross domestic product in 1935 was $865 billion. In 2009, it was more than $12 trillion. We have more than enough money to buy ourselves some leisure time at the end of our lives. At least if that's one of our priorities.

Polling suggests that it is. An August survey from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research tested reactions to a variety of Social Security fixes. One of the options was raising the retirement age to 70. Two-thirds of respondents opposed it. Another option was eliminating the cap on payroll taxes so that well-off workers pay the tax on their full income, just as middle-income workers do now. A solid 61 percent supported it. [My emphasis-- which is what we've been harping about all year at this blog and what I talk with all Blue America candidates about as well.]

That's almost the reverse of the conversation in Washington, where affluent people who like their jobs propose cutting benefits for the poor (which is, after all, what raising the retirement age would do) rather than lowering benefits or increasing the payroll tax on, well, themselves. Which is not to say that we should be raising taxes or cutting benefits on the better-off, either.

The universally unpleasant options for reform are a testament to Social Security's efficiency. It's a simple transfer program, with administrative costs that amount to less than 0.9 percent of total spending. There's not much fat to cut.

That can't be said for much else in American public policy. Our health-care system costs twice as much as the German system and doesn't deliver better results. Our defense sector is wasteful and bloated. Our tax code could raise more money and do less to harm growth if we cleaned it out. Our home prices are driven upward by the mortgage interest tax deduction. Our health insurance premiums are goosed by the exclusion of employer-sponsored insurance from taxable income.

Reforming any of those sectors (or, in the case of health care, reforming it more) would be politically difficult, but would mean better policy. Reforming Social Security will be politically difficult and result in worse policy. That's the good thing about putting everything on the table. It allows you to think more clearly about what should be taken off.

I've always had a lot of faith in Ezra... and I'm glad to see he's back on the right path. Suzanne Kosmas, Betsy Markey and Frank Kratovil, on the other hand, are all hopeless and Congress and the American people will be better off without them.

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At 3:27 PM, Anonymous me said...

Obama just might go down as the biggest fuck-up in presidential history, even bigger than Bush.

He was given an opportunity that was unprecedented, and completely pissed it away, with that stupid "post politics" fantasy of his. As a result, we're going to get stuck with more presidents like Bush, and even worse.

What a disaster. This ranks right up there with Ford's pardon of Nixon, which condemned us to 40 years of the likes of Reagan, Cheney, the Bushes, Murdoch, and all the rest of that human scum that has polluted our country in recent decades.

Minus a sudden 180, which I think Obama is incapable of doing, the US will not recover in my lifetime.


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