Political Animal


September 06, 2012 3:55 PM Entitlement Trouble

By Ed Kilgore

Digby noticed it. I noticed. Maybe you noticed it, too: the one time Bill Clinton didn’t get rousing applause from the Democratic Convention audience last night was when he made a favorable reference to the Simpson-Bowles Commission.

Knowing that Clinton probably wouldn’t deliberately separate himself from the president at this particular moment on an issue so important, nervous liberals probably were not make less nervous by this remark from Obama spox Stephanie Cutter:

Top campaign aides to President Obama said that in his speech on Thursday night, the president will discuss deficit reduction and entitlement reform.
Stephanie Cutter, appearing on CNN’s Starting Point on Thursday, said, “I think you will hear the president lay out his plan of balanced deficit reduction where everybody pays their fair share and we cut what we don’t need and that includes entitlement reform.”

Now it’s not as though there is one particular progressive line on this subject. Many, like Digby, think the whole idea of limiting entitlement spending (other than perhaps by reducing health care costs via more direct government involvement in health insurance) is a red herring, and that talk of deficit reduction—at least in anything other than a very long post-recovery sense—is playing on enemy turf. Others buy into the idea of a long-term “deal” (often called the “grand bargain”) that trades limited support for spending curbs on Medicare (and for a few, maybe even Social Security) for Republican support (supposing that’s even theoretically possible) for tax increases. Digby, quoting Chris Hayes’ quip about the risk of Democrats becoming “tax collectors for the austerity state” (a play on Newt Gingrich’s claim in the 1990s that strict balanced-budget Republicans like Bob Dole were acting as “tax collectors for the welfare state”), considers the whole approach bad policy and politics alike.

But it’s safe to say that some rhetorical support for a deficit reduction “grand bargain” and for “openness” to “entitlement reform” is pretty much baked into the ObamaWorld cake, and if he stays at past levels of generality and of “deals” being contingent on unlikely GOP concessions, there will be grumbling on the Left but nothing mutinous.

If, however, Obama gets more specific and less contingent—endorsing, say, the actual Simpson-Bowles recommendation as central to his second-term agenda—then we’ll hear something worse than grumbling. No, at this late date you won’t see any “liberal revolt” against Obama’s re-election, but you could very well hear Democratic congressional leaders and candidates refusing to get on any Simpson-Bowles bus. It’s that sort of trouble the White House must carefully consider before taking a step that would undoubtedly win cheers from lots of Beltway pundits and a handful of centrist Democrats—and probably from Bill Clinton.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • FlipYrWhig on September 06, 2012 4:10 PM:

    This goes in the category of "stuff Obama says to help make his case rhetorically to wishy-washy low-info types that he's willing to play ball, but Republicans can't take yes for an answer." It does not go in the category of "stuff Obama desperately wants to do, mostly to spite the liberals he actually hates," although that never stops certain precincts of the blogosphere from putting it there.

  • Phil Perspective on September 06, 2012 4:20 PM:

    It does not go in the category of "stuff Obama desperately wants to do, mostly to spite the liberals he actually hates," ..

    Does it really play well with low-info types? Not that I know of. Social Security is as popular as it gets. And it's not very generous. So you are wrong. After all, who was the only politico to show up at the opening of the Pete Peterson-funded(who outwardly boasts of a willingness to spend a billion to kill Social Secuity) Hamilton Project?

  • Ted Atkinson on September 06, 2012 4:33 PM:

    Hold on a second, I have a question as a registered Democrat who campaigned for Obama in 2008. What's wrong with entitlement reform? And what's wrong with addressing the deficit? As a general matter, these should be matters that you, Ed, and digby don't flinch at. The deficit in the long term is, as Krugman himself noted, an issue that needs to be addressed. Similarly, the notion of entitlement reform does not need to be shot down as a general matter, because entitlement reform can be done in a number of ways and mean a number of things. Ryan's Vouchercare and the President's approach to Medicare "reform" (the $716 billion reduction to the Medicare program that Clinton discussed, which eliminated wasteful spending but did not reduce benefits and lengthened the life of the program)are both "entitlement reforms," but one is responsible, and one is an attempt to undermine the program altogether. Progressives need to understand that the long-term debt needs to be addressed, but more importantly, they must realize that there are progressive solutions to these issues, as well.

  • Aaron on September 06, 2012 4:40 PM:

    I'd like to see Obama come out and say that removing the Social Security income cap virtually brings the fund into balance. Cuts to benefits could and should only come out of those new benefits provided to people with incomes over the current cap.

    I'd demand that any additional cuts to Medicare and Medicaid must be contingent on the unemployment rate being reduced below 6%.

  • c u n d gulag on September 06, 2012 4:42 PM:

    Jayzoos H. Keerist, with the landlord banging at the door - Obama better NOT dwell on any of this "Grand Bargain" crap before the election.
    He'll lose, and we'll be worse off!

    Needless to say, I'm against any, and I mean ANY, cuts in benefits for the "EARNED BENEFITS!" (I hate that 'Entitlement' crap!!!).
    Or increasing the age for enrollment, or means-testing, or caps, or any other crap that comes between people and a dignified old age, on the way to death.


    I don't really want to think about permanent changes in "EARNED BENEFITS," traded off for some BS or nebulous tax-increases, that CPA's and Tax Attorney's will find loopholes for about an hour after the new codes are printed.

    WE the people, don't have any feckin' lobbyists.
    And, WE the people, can't afford CPA's or Tax Attorney's to help us collect what ever will be left of our "EARNED BENEFITS."

    To keep SS and Medicare healthy, eliminate the cap on ANY income.

    And We the people, will have to work on our Congressional representatives to try to talk President Obama out of this folly.

    You want the deficit to go down?
    Go a percentage point or two above Clinton's increase.
    Re-establish the "ESTATE TAX" to former high levels - no sense in breeding aristocracy.
    Lower military spending.
    END privatization - since most of it costs more for the same or worse same results that we got with government running things.
    Eliminate ALL tax breaks for companies shipping jobs overseas, or establish a sliding scale paying half of the percentage of a companies TOTAL jobs that are overseas:
    90% of related jobs overseas = 45% tax rate.
    80% = 40%.

    This way, the "Grand Bargain" is 'grander' for WE the people, than it is for the corporations, and THEM the rich people.

  • Peter C on September 06, 2012 4:47 PM:

    I don't expect Obama to forget that he's speaking to the activists in his party and that our enthusiasm is key to this election. Let's not borrow trouble. He can't be oblivious to the fact that 'Simpson-Bowles' was a dud and hardly an olive branch cherished by either the Republicans or the Democrats, much less both.

    Clinton proved that we could have budgets which put us on a glide-slope to eliminate the national debt without the safety-net-hatchet-job proposed by Simpson-Bowles.

    Simpson-Bowles called for tax increases, as will Obama. The ACA trims waste from Medicare and has provisions to decrease health care costs, so 'entitlement reforms' are already in the works. This could easily account for Cutter's 'spoilers'.

    Let's not panic.

  • dalloway on September 06, 2012 4:56 PM:

    Great speeches don't generally include explaining a very complex economic deal that fell apart in a very unpopular Congress. Full stop.

  • FlipYrWhig on September 06, 2012 5:04 PM:

    @Phil: What plays is rhetoric about coming together to solve problems. A lot of people think The Debt is a problem. (I think they badly misunderstand the dynamic between cause and effect there, but I digress.) The point of talking about Reducing The Debt is to project a can-do, let's all do what's necessary attitude -- which Republicans refuse. The liberal blogosphere abhors the rhetoric of cooperation and compromise because they/we know that cooperating and compromising with Republicans is a pipe dream. We like Deval Patrick thundering about backbone and Howard Dean refusing to apologize for being a Democrat. But millions of people who vote, including loyal Democrats and true "swing voters," live for the Let's All Work Together stuff. And Clinton harped on that string all night. Democrats compromise and cooperate, Republicans obstruct and hate. Democrats would be bipartisan if they could, Republicans never will. It's a partisan argument about bipartisanship. Digby, FDL, et al. have never understood this.

  • maryQ on September 06, 2012 5:05 PM:

    Would-be revolvers should consider this: who would you rather have controlling the terms of the great entitlement spending debate-Obama or Them? 'Cause the debate IS happening. And while I ole and respect Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, neither one of them could win a national election.

    Means-testing and raising payroll caps are much prettier words than voucher.

  • boatboy_srq on September 06, 2012 5:07 PM:

    Is it just me, or does the whinging from the Right about "entitlement reform" sound suspiciously close to the "tort reform" supposed to automagically make healthcare more affordable?

  • WontGetFooledAgain on September 06, 2012 5:19 PM:

    I am not 100% against entitlement reform, but it needs to be fair and just.

    As good as Clinton's speech was last night, his legacy is still a mixed bag. He taught all Dems to listen to Centrists with extreme skepticism, because all too often, the "Grand Bargains" are nothing more than embracing GOP policy, and then getting labelled as the nutty Left if you suggest that maybe Dems should embrace Dem policy.

    So yeah. Obama better be careful. It's not in the bag yet. I am still more than willing to put the hammer down if he starts taking my vote for granted.

    I am willing to compromise, even on things that are very important to me, but it has to be a true compromise. And I don't trust Obama (or Clinton) on that score. Lessons learned from the healthcare debate.

  • Upper West on September 06, 2012 5:37 PM:

    Why does no one every even mention the Congressional Progressive Caucus Budget, which provides for a balanced budget without cutting "entitlements?" (mainly by cutting defense and raising upper bracket taxes)

    Why is the playing field always starting with the need to cut "entitlements?"

  • Varecia on September 06, 2012 5:49 PM:

    The following is from the WH website info on Social Security, and was sent to me about 2 weeks ago when I asked for clarification regarding potential changes to SS:

    "The President is committed to protecting and strengthening Social Security—and securing the basic compact that hard work should be rewarded with dignity at retirement or in case of disability or early death. That’s why he has called on Congress to work on a bipartisan basis to preserve Social Security as a reliable source of income for American seniors and as a program that provides robust benefits to survivors and workers who develop disabilities. He believes that no current beneficiaries should see their basic benefits reduced and he will not accept an approach that slashes benefits for future generations. The President also stands firmly opposed to privatization and rejects the notion that the future of hard-working Americans should be left to the fluctuations of financial markets."

  • foosion on September 06, 2012 5:53 PM:

    Social Security is not a budget problem. It can pay close to 100% of contemplated benefits indefinitely. It could pay 100% with amounts less than the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000 or increasing the income cap on social security taxes.

    The problem with Medicare is that healthcare is too expensive in the US. Any revision that doesn't cut healthcare costs just shifts the burden from taxpayers generally to seniors and most likely increases overall spending.

    There's absolutely no reason to include either of these in a "grand bargain." It would be stupid policy and stupid politics.

  • foosion on September 06, 2012 7:06 PM:

    e believes that no current beneficiaries should see their basic benefits reduced and he will not accept an approach that slashes benefits for future generations.

    That's not very encouraging. It reads like something a lawyer would write to try to be technically accurate while misleading the reader. Especially dangerous are the phrases "current beneficiaries," "basic benefits" and "slashes benefits." That suggests he'd reduce payments for current beneficiaries that aren't "basic" and reduce benefits for future generations that so long they're not "slashed."

    Given the important of social security to the vast majority of retirees, this is not good.

  • SadOldVet on September 06, 2012 7:08 PM:

    Please President Obama,

    That the Vulture/Voucher candidates are not elected is too important to us. Please wait until after November 6 to return to your role as The Capitulator-In-Chief.