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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can Calling for a Social Security Benefits Increase Give Dems New Leverage with High-Turnout Seniors?

Helaine Olen’s Salon.com post, “How Elizabeth Warren Wields Power: Even without running she’s forcing the Democratic candidates to look out for consumers” reveals one way a leader who is not a presidential candidate can set her party’s economic policy agenda. Olen’s article also provides a solid rebuttal to the GOP meme that the Democrats’ “bench” is weak. Sen Warren is already amassing an impressive record and wielding considerable influence
But Olen’s post also provides an intriguing idea to help Democrats get a bigger bite of the high-turnout senior demographic on election day, 2016. As Olen explains,

…In late March, Warren–along with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin–thrust Social Security into the spotlight by adding an amendment to a congressional budget resolution calling for an increase in benefits. The move seemed like so much political theater. After all, there was zero chance the measure would pass the Republican-controlled Congress. But the deft legislative maneuver forced Senate Democrats to take a stand on the issue. As Mother Jones enthused prophetically, “Warren just turned Social Security expansion–once a progressive pipe-dream–into a tough-to-ignore 2016 issue.”
No kidding. Now, all three Democratic candidates are competing to expand the program. Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders are calling for increasing retirement benefits, while Hillary Clinton is advocating a tax credit for those who take time out of the paid workforce to manage family responsibilities. On the other hand, with the exception of Donald Trump, all the leading Republican contenders are campaigning on promises of raising the retirement age or taking other steps to cut back on Social Security payments, likely setting up a clear contrast for voters in the general election next year. (Marco Rubio, for example, supports raising the retirement age and would increase benefits for low-income retirees by reducing the growth in benefits for wealthier seniors.)
Warren also contributed to breaking a five-year logjam over a Department of Labor effort to expand investor protection for retirement accounts. At the beginning of the year, the effort appeared to be foundering, derailed yet again by fierce financial services industry pushback.

There are no recent polls which show whether or not most seniors would favor a hike in Social Security benefits financed by lifting the cap on wages taxed for SS. But studies have indicated that most seniors have inadequate assets for a comfortable retirement, so it’s hard to see much downside in Democrats making it more of a campaign issue.
Half of all Americans “say they can’t afford to save for retirement,” and one-third “have next to no retirement savings at all,” according to a recent Frontline report. The Retirement Income Deficit, “the gap between what American households have actually saved today and what they should have saved today to maintain their living standards in retirement,” is currently estimated to be about $7.7 trillion, according to the Center for Retirement Research.
It’s not about securing a ‘sea change’ in senior voting trends in 2016. That’s a longer-term project. But if Democrats can reduce by just 2 or 3 percent the proportion of seniors who vote Republican, it could make a big difference down-ballot, as well as in electing the next president.
Democrats simply have to do a more effective job of messaging to seniors, making the case why voting Democratic is good for the living standards of older Americans. A campaign including youtube videos, TV ads, ‘message du jour statements’ and soundbites by all Democratic candidates, particularly in battleground states, could help persuade enough seniors that Democrats have more to offer them.
During the last year, it’s fair to say that Republicans demonstrated more relentless ‘message discipline’ than did the Democrats. 2016 would be a good time for Dems to reverse that trend, starting with our presidential candidates focusing more on measures to improve retirement security.

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