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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

French Demos Suggest Social Security May Be Wedge Issue

When John Boehner sent up his raise-the-age-for-Social Security-Benefits-to-70 trial balloon back in June, he caught some predictable flack. Maybe not enough, if the current street protest demonstrations in France against raising the age for retirement benefits are any indication.
Yes, I know, unions are much stronger in France, as is class consciousness in general. France is far more progressive in terms of social benefits than the U.S., as well as other European countries. And yes, there is growing and broad discontent with the Sarkozy government’s performance on a range of economic concerns, which helped to get those huge crowds out in the streets of Paris and across France.
Nonetheless, it was President Sarkozy’s proposal to raise the age of eligibility for minimum retirement benefits from 60 to 62 ( from 65 to 67 for a full pension) that sparked the most massive protests demonstrations France has seen in two decades. It’s not just the graying of the French population. It’s also the feeling among middle-aged and young workers that they are about to get screwed because Sarkozy’s center-right government has mismanaged the economy. Apparently, the U.S. isn’t the only country in which the government’s primary retirement security program is a ‘third rail.’
Sarkozy isn’t the first French leader to catch hell for trying to weaken retirement benefits. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac withdrew his proposal to weaken retirement benefits for transport workers after strikes crippled France.
The differences between French and U.S. politics notwithstanding, American seniors don’t like politicians weakening their government retirement benefits any more than do their counterparts in European countries. They may not take it to the streets quite so readily, but they will take it to the polls, and they vote in disproportionately large numbers, especially in midterm elections.
Boehner’s proposal wouldn’t fully kick in for 20 years — intended no doubt as a buffer zone to protect his party from angry seniors. But many seniors are rightly suspicious of any screwing around with Social Security, as a ‘slippery slope’ that sets a dangerous precedent. And the 20 year buffer zone wouldn’t come as much comfort to middle-aged workers, who are also a large midterm demographic — the age 45-59 demographic were 34 percent of mid-term voters in 2006. It’s up to Democrats to remind them, again and again, that Boehner’s idea delays their retirement eligibility.
So the events in France may indicate that Boehner got off way too easy. A little grumbling here and there doesn’t get it as a response, when the guy who will be running the House of Representatives if his party carries the day on November 2nd starts setting the stage for screwing millions of American workers.
No, it’s not as much an issue of immediate concern as jobs and economic recovery. But Boehner’s putting the weakening of Social Security benefits on the table ought to merit more outrage. As usual the print and broadcast media let him off easy, but that’s partly because Democrats didn’t raise enough hell about it. That can be changed by raising the issue more frequently in speeches and ads, and maybe in time enough to do some good on November 2nd.

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