There's A Reason It's Called The Third Rail

Josh Marshall offers some excellent advice on where to go (and where not to go) with this social security debate. I would imagine that we will all have a lot to say about this in the next few months, but I would like to offer one small observation right now.

It is true that the president is lying about the crisis and about his solution, but that is a very complicated point to make to the public, particularly in the media climate in which "A Barney Christmas" is shown on a loop. We are right to formulate the argument for those occasions when we are dealing with people who are really interested in the details, but we should not make the mistake of thinking that reason is going to win this fight. This fight will be won on emotion.

The Republicans have been planting these seeds for a long, long time. They have been saying for decades that Social Security was going broke. This is what they do. They create a slogan then they wash rinse and repeat again and again if need be to instill a sense of CW about the issues they care about. They have slowly built the sense of crisis where one does not exist and now that they have President Reckless in the White House they are going to see if they can get away with taking action.

The main question that needs to be asked and answered is why and I think it's clear that they have sown the seed of "crisis" for many years simply because they want to destroy social security. And the good news for us is that that meme has been in the body politic for far longer than the social security "crisis," (which is why they were forced to dress this thing up as reform in the first place.)

They want to destroy social security. They voted against it in 1935 and they have been trying to figure out a way to get rid of it ever since. The Republicans do not believe that we should have a safety net for old people. They never have.

Don't get bogged down in details, just repeat, repeat, repeat. They do not believe that the government should provide all Americans with a small guaranteed income when they are unable to work due to old age or debilitating illness. They never have. The Republicans want to destroy social security.

My grandfather used to believe that back in the 60's and it's still true today. He believed it because people like Ronald Reagan were saying back then that social security was a bad deal:

But we're against those entrusted with this program when they practice deception regarding its fiscal shortcomings, when they charge that any criticism of the program means that we want to end payments to those people who depend on them for a livelihood. They've called it "insurance" to us in a hundred million pieces of literature. But then they appeared before the Supreme Court and they testified it was a welfare program. They only use the term "insurance" to sell it to the people. And they said Social Security dues are a tax for the general use of the government, and the government has used that tax. There is no fund, because Robert Byers, the actuarial head, appeared before a congressional committee and admitted that Social Security as of this moment is 298 billion dollars in the hole. But he said there should be no cause for worry because as long as they have the power to tax, they could always take away from the people whatever they needed to bail them out of trouble. And they're doing just that.

A young man, 21 years of age, working at an average salary -- his Social Security contribution would, in the open market, buy him an insurance policy that would guarantee 220 dollars a month at age 65. The government promises 127. He could live it up until he's 31 and then take out a policy that would pay more than Social Security. Now are we so lacking in business sense that we can't put this program on a sound basis, so that people who do require those payments will find they can get them when they're due -- that the cupboard isn't bare?

That was forty years ago. Later, in the 1980's, Ronald Reagan's indiscreet budget director David Stockman admitted that the purpose of ginning up the social security crisis was "to permit the politicians to make it look like they are doing something for the beneficiary population when they are doing something to it, which they normally would not have the courage to undertake." And then with masterful chutzpah, considering his famous "Choice" speech from 1964 excerpted above, Ronnie then went on to use the so-called "looming" SS crisis to great effect --- he flogged the GOP contention that the program was insolvent (as they'd been doing for fifty years) and also raised the payroll taxes which they immediately raided to cover their budget deficit. And now, lo and behold, we are "in crisis" again. Imagine that. Brilliant.

It's been the same old crap forever. But unlike today, the Democrats of 1964 were willing to fight fire with fire on these issues and they had absolutely no problem depicting the Republicans as wanting to throw old people out on the ice flow as an illustration of their true intent on social security. (Rick Perlstein's "Before The Storm" is indispensible for an understanding of the politics of that era.) It's true that Goldwater never said that he wanted to destroy social security, but Lyndon Johnson had no problem accusing him of it. And the fact is that he, like all wingnuts, have always wanted to destroy it. He was a hero of the John Birch Society and the destruction of social security was always right up there with the abolition of the graduated income tax, the impeachment of various high government officials, the end to busing for the purpose of school integration and the end to U.S. membership in the United Nations. (Hmmmmm)

"Republicans want to destroy Social Security" has been in our civic bloodstream for a lot longer than "private accounts." Every citizen over 45 has heard it a million times. Let's wake it up and put it to work. Demagogue the motherfucker, just like LBJ did. That's what they would do. That's what we used to do. I'm sorry we don't live in a wonderful era of reason and good will but we don't. The Republicans have always wanted to destroy social security and they have always said that it was running out of money and that it was a bad deal for the average worker. And they have always been wrong. We need to remind America about that.

Update: Liberal Oasis thinks that Marshall is wrong to say that we shouldn't argue that the Wall Street fat cats will benefit from this new scheme and I think he's right in that it is a useful piece of the populist argument. However, I don't think as he does that it goes to motive as powerfully as the argument that "they just don't believe in it, they never have." Their motive for destroying social security is that it puts the lie to their contention that government can't be trusted to do any positive social good. They are wrong and social security proves it. That's why they must create the lie that it won't work even while it's clearly working. As the quotes above prove, they've been crying wolf for decades and yet the program continues to provide millions of old and disabled people a bare minimum of income when they are past their working years and it will continue to be funded, fairly painlessly, for at least another forty years. It's very existence is a slap in the face to the Republican philosophy. That's why they must destroy it.