With another Democratic candidate debate on tap in Nevada later today, you can bet Barack Obama is going to get questions about his proposal for modifying the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes. But it’s important to understand why this is such a big deal for a lot of progressive Democrats. His proposal isn’t the controversial thing (though it certainly would be in a general election campaign, where it would be hammered by Republicans as a tax increase); it’s his decision to raise the subject at all, and particularly his use of the word “crisis” to describe the status of the Social Security system.
The immediate reason for this reaction is obvious enough; by the well-earned end of Bush’s 2005 drive to divert payroll tax funds to create private retirement accounts, Democratic critics of his plan were devoting just as much time denying there was a Social Security solvency problem as they were attacking the plan’s baleful consequences. So ironically, a proposal by Obama that’s “Left” in terms of its specifics (avoiding any benefit changes while making the payroll tax burden more progressive) is drawing fire from the Left itself as a heretical concession to the rationale for Bush’s proposal, and to those much-derided “Centrist” media types who like to talk about entitlement reform. And for that reason, the reaction among left-bent Democrats to Obama’s Social Security rap provides a microcosm of the exquisite ambivalence they are experiencing over the Obama candidacy in its entirety.
For an idea of the significance invested in this issue by many progressive netroots activists, check out this person-to-person grilling that Obama received from MyDD’s Jonathan Singer:
Barack Obama: I think the point you’re making is why talk about it right now. Is that right?
Jonathan Singer: Yeah. And why use the term “crisis”?
Obama: It is a long-term problem. I know that people, including you, are very sensitive to the concern that we repeat anything that sounds like George Bush. But I have been very clear in fighting privatization. I have been adamant about the fact that I am opposed to it. What I believe is that it is a long-term problem that we should deal with now. And the sooner the deal with it then the better off it’s going to be.
So the notion that somehow because George Bush was trying to drum up fear in order to execute [his] agenda means that Democrats shouldn’t talk about it at all I think is a mistake. This is part of what I meant when I said we’re constantly reacting to the other side instead of setting our own terms for the debate, but also making sure we are honest and straight forward about the issues that we’re concerned about.
Singer’s take on this conversation?
In all it’s not everything that I wanted to hear. But perhaps more importantly, Obama had the opportunity to hear that folks don’t want him talking about a non-existent “crisis” in Social Security. And hopefully, he will pay heed to that sentiment.
There, in a nutshell, is the lingering concern a lot of folks on the Left have with Barack Obama: his policies are suitably progressive, but his framing of those policies, from his constant invocation of bipartisanship to his occasional violation of progressive taboos (e.g., lecturing teachers about their opposition to merit pay, and bloggers about their “incivility”, and consorting with anti-gay gospel singers), makes them suspect he’s really talking past them in order to appeal to the David Broders of the political world.
The recent buzz surrounding the possibility that Obama’s on course to provide a real challenge to Hillary Clinton has brought these conflicted feelings about Obama on the Left to a head once again. And the “crisis” over Obama is heightened by the fact that John Edwards is simultaneously offering, not just the progressive “steak” but all the netroots-style “sizzle” any Broder-hating blogger could ever ask for, line for line and word for word.
As we get closer to actual voting, the Left’s “Obama Problem” is becoming acute. At one site alone, OpenLeft, and on one day, you have Matt Stoller citing the candidate’s new package of technology proposals as the reason he’s now leaning towards support for Obama, and Chris Bowers hoping against hope that Obama, despite himself, could marshal the creative class/minority working class coalition that Chris considers the future of progressive politics. Both these gents have strongly criticized and (in Chris’ case) written off Obama in the very recent past, mainly for the heresies cited above.
I’m discussing this phenomenon mainly to crystallize the subtext of much of the netroots debate on Obama, Edwards, and the entire Democratic nominating contest. Does it really matter in terms of actual voters? You’d have to guess John Edwards thinks so, given his ever-more-faithful channeling of netroots-approved rhetoric these days. And to the extent that everyone agrees media coverage of the campaign does move votes, it’s not so strange that New Media coverage would have an impact as well.
But votes will move media, too. If Edwards wins in Iowa, it will inevitably be viewed as an ideological as well as organizational triumph, and even if Obama survives to fight again, his support on the Left will rapidly dissipate. If Obama wins Iowa, and gets the desired one-on-one with HRC, the Left’s Obama Problem may be resolved in the opposite direction, though the agony inflicted by Obama’s “centrist” rhetorical tendencies could grow with the realization that the Left has nowhere else to go.
In the meantime, this “primary within the primary” will continue. And so, too, will the quieter but still very interesting internal debate among Democratic “centrists” about Obama and his rivals, a topic I’ll write about in the near future.