While more and more prominent Democrats slowly joining President Obama’s drum roll in support of Social Security cuts “reforms,” like those just put forward by the co-chairs of the deficit commission he appointed, this most recent election should give them serious pause before pursuing these recommendations.
In this last election, Democrats performed terribly with senior citizen voters. National House exit polling shows only 38 percent of those over 65 voted for Democrats while 59 percent votes for Republicans. This is the worst showing for Democrats among seniors in decades and a big part of why Dems lost so many House seats.
According to a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research memo (PDF), it was concerns about the “cuts” to Medicare in the new health care law that caused such a huge swing away from Democrats among the elderly.
Seniors played an immense role in this result – raising their participation as a share of the electorate to 23 percent and their vote for Republicans by 10 points since 2008. They were clearly spooked by health care reform and the so-called cuts in Medicare.
The Republicans absolutely hammered Democrats with what the GOP labeled as a $500 billion cut in Medicare as part of the new health care law. The fairly misleading message clearly resonated with seniors who really don’t want their entitlements cut.
What the Democrats actually did was reduce projected Medicare spending by around $500 billion by mainly trying to address waste, overpayments, and inefficiency. The so-called cuts were not meant to affect the core coverage provided by Medicare. In addition, some of the savings were put toward reducing the Medicare Part D doughnut hole, reducing the deficit, and expanding coverage for others; positive things that should have at least partially mitigated anger over the “cuts.” But despite all that, senior citizens were still furious over it, and strongly punished Democrats at the voting booth.
Cutting Social Security will be dramatically worse for Democrats
With that in mind, a Democratic plan to cut Social Security would likely be even more politically destructive to Democrats among senior citizens. Unlike with Medicare, there is no real waste or overpayments to private insurance companies in Social Security to trim. Any cost saving reforms to Social Security must actually be straight-up cuts in benefits.
Similarly, Democrats placed the unpopular savings from Medicare in an omnibus bill meant to address the long-time Democratic goal of health care reform. The result was that the Medicare saving had many defenders who, even if the didn’t care for the Medicare reforms, thought them necessary part of the coverage expansion and insurance reforms they supported.
Cuts to Social Security will not even have these limited political upsides. There will be no Democratic base to defend cuts to Social Security like they did the Medicare reforms put inside the health care bill. Most importantly, it will make inevitable the ads about how “Democrats cut billions from your Social Security benefits” irrefutably true, unlike the Medicare ads this last cycle.
Social Security is called the third rail of politics for a reason. If Obama touches it, he will destroy the Democratic party in 2012.
After looking at the senior vote in 2010, one can only conclude that any attempt by President Obama or Democrats to reduce Social Security benefits would be a political disaster. Polling indicates that a majority of Americans strong oppose raising the retirement age, and I can only assume the idea is even less popular among those about to retire.
Democrats attempted to simply reduce waste in Medicare as part of health care reform, and it caused voters over 65 to reject them en masse because it was framed by Republicans as a cut in Medicare benefits. If Democrats promote actually cutting people’s Social Security benefits, I have every reason to believe their losses among seniors citizens in 2012 will make their historically poor performance in 2010 look small in comparison.