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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lux: Be Thankful for Social Security, Medicare….and its Unconvincing Opponents

The following excerpt by Democratic strategist Mike Lux, author of The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, is cross-posted from HuffPo:
I know there will be a lot of very thoughtful and moving blog posts today at all my favorite blogs and news sites about what different people are thankful for. Truth be told, I am actually a pretty sentimental guy, and if this Thanksgiving is like most of the rest, some of those pieces will probably make me a little teary-eyed. I know I am incredibly thankful for how lucky I am, that I live in such an incredible country and have such a remarkable family. I am thankful as well for a country where my mom and other older relatives have Social Security and Medicare to rely on; where my brother Kevin had disability support throughout his life; for a country where an elderly and disabled homeless man I know finally is getting government housing after a long wait.
But I have to admit a certain cynical side as well, because when I see a video like this, I also become very thankful for policy opponents like this:

It is interesting that Mr. Blankfein’s video came out the same day a much smarter, savvier proponent of Social Security and Medicare cuts came out with a memo about how to sell such cuts. Lloyd did pretty much everything wrong, as far as what the memo recommended, and I’m sure my friends at Third Way would not have wanted the CEO of Goldman Sachs as their lead spokesman on the campaign to make those cuts. But God bless him, I am so very thankful: having a man as wealthy and privileged and powerful as Blankfein, a man who is the CEO of a company which has gotten enormous government bailouts and largess over the last 5 years, tell people they need to retire later and have their benefits cut is a great boon to folks like me who are opposing such things.
The people at Third Way are a much tougher foe. They are old political warriors who know how to craft messaging research to make it look like voters are with them, and know how to use people’s love of Medicare and Social Security as a way to scaring them into making cuts in the programs.
It is heart-breaking to me to read the coldly analytical memo describing the focus groups they did with a goal of figuring out how to build support for cutting the programs these voters love, rely on, and are desperately worried about losing. These paragraphs are powerful:

When imagining a future where Social Security and Medicare were not fixed, everyone of our participants imagined a bleak existence, not just for the country, but for themselves personally. They described that scenario as being one in which people “can’t get care,” “die earlier,” “are unhealthier,” and “work longer.” That was a future in which “our system has failed and there were no financial supports.” And how do they view people standing in the way of fixing these programs? As one Minnesota Democrat put it, “blissfully ignorant of the issues or too selfish to care about someone else to deal with these problems.
It’s personal.
Even though our focus group participants were all over the age of 45, with some significantly older and already benefiting from Social Security and Medicare, they all worried that the programs’ financial problems would jeopardize their own benefits – not just those of future retirees. They felt personally threatened and feared a loss of control over their own lives in the absence of changes. One noted, “I don’t think it’s going to be around when I get it.” And another said, “We’ve been told for 30 years it [Social Security] won’t be there and we got into that mindset that we’re not going to get it.”
When asked to write a postcard to their grandchildren in a future where our country had not taken action to shore-up Social Security and Medicare, these participants revealed their deep fear of losing their homes and becoming a burden on their families. One participant wrote to his grandchildren, “You now are responsible for starting a new family while you must also care for your parents.” Another described the consequences to their grandchildren as “that’s why I live off Mom and Daddy. They have to take care of me.” Another said without fixing Social Security, “the payment I am receiving is not enough for me to live by myself so I would like to live with you.” A recurring theme with Medicare was the stability it afforded seniors to stay in their own homes and not burden their children. One woman noted that “you shouldn’t need to be rich to get a lawyer to protect your house” from medical bills. Another described the consequences of inaction more bluntly, “Grandpa and I live in a nursing home. [We] lost our house…and are getting abused.”

As that focus group participant said, for 30 years the fear-mongers have been telling people that Social Security and Medicare weren’t going to be there for people, and because these programs are so loved and so needed, the plan now is to use that fear to sell them on the idea that cuts to benefits are needed. Because of the fear-mongering, people are worried that these programs need to be “fixed”. But here’s where the Third Way memos are especially revealing: they don’t ever seem to tell people, or ask them poll questions, about Third Way’s preferred solutions such as cutting benefits or raising the retirement age. The reason they don’t ask such questions is that they know how unpopular those policy ideas are. Instead, they keep everything general and generic, a classic tactic of people doing a poll for public consumption where they know the specifics of what they are proposing are unpopular.
Republicans, of course, have been doing this for years. You ask questions like “is government too big?”, “would you like a tax cut?”, “do you believe in traditional values?” or “are deficits a problem?”, people tend to nod along and say sure. You get into any kind of policy specifics, people quickly will tell you they prefer Democratic policy positions. Third Way is playing the same kind of game. They ask people whether they want to “fix” Social Security and Medicare, of course they will say yes — they love and need them, and don’t want them threatened as the folks at Third Way and their allies keep saying they are. You ask general things like they asked in their poll, people will say yes. Are deficits a problem? Do they want leaders to come together and compromise? Do they want bipartisan solutions? Isn’t America a great country? Aren’t loving mothers and grandmothers wonderful? Okay, they didn’t ask the last two questions, but they might as well have. Pollsters ask questions like these not because they teach us anything useful, but because they want to release the poll and spin things their way.
But progressives can learn things from the Third Way polling too. We now know what the opposition plans in the fiscal showdown: scare people into thinking that Social Security and Medicare are threatened, and that only by agreeing to cuts in benefits can it be saved. We have to be prepared to lay out the clear facts on Social Security and Medicare, and have our own policy alternatives to promote. The Social Security formula can be shifted so that wealthier Americans contributions are not capped at $95,000, a simple fix Third Way never mentions that would easily solve all of Social Security’s long term fiscal issues for the foreseeable future. Hundreds of billions in Medicare dollars can be saved over the next several years by forcing the drug companies to negotiate with Medicare on their prices, and by cracking down on providers gaming the system. These are simple solutions that don’t require screwing over the middle income and poor seniors dependent on these programs.
You know what is disturbing about the Third Way’s release of these memos at this juncture of the debate? They undercut the President’s and Congressional Democrats’ bargaining strategy with the Republicans on these issues. Republicans all over town were touting the Third Way’s memos yesterday, very excited to have a Democratic group join them in their mission to cut middle class benefits from Medicare and Social Security. This is, sadly, a repeat of an earlier pattern of undercutting Democrats: Third Way in September called Elizabeth Warren’s message “catastrophically anti-business,” a quote the Chamber of Commerce delightedly picked up and ran with in trying to help Scott Brown defeat her.
So on this day before Thanksgiving, let me be gracious to my opponents on these policy debates. Lloyd Blankfein, I salute you for giving us such a great example of a wealthy powerful man who takes massive government largesse and who wants to slash benefits for the middle class and make them work longer before retirement; our side will be able to use that video well in this debate. And to the smart folks at Third Way, thank you for spelling out clearly the kind of messaging the Republicans will be using in their war on Social Security and Medicare.
The class war continues unabated, even on Thanksgiving week: the wealthy and their allies trying to take money out of the hands of the middle class. I’m thankful the middle class is still in the fight.

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