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David Sirota
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On Social Security, If Not Now, When?

Comment

Many centuries ago, the Jewish scholar Hillel posed a question that is as prescient as any Nostradamus prophecy: "If not now," he asked, "when?" It's a rhetorical query many of us contemplate during the high holy days, which concluded last month. And after a revealing comment by President Obama's top political aide, it's a question that now haunts Social Security.

The remark in question came during last week's debate about fiscal issues on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." In an otherwise forgettable conversation, things became newsworthy when the conversation turned to Obama's position on Social Security reforms. At that point, the president's consigliere, David Axelrod, responded not with a clear position, but instead by trying to halt the conversation.

"I'll tell you what, when you get elected to the United States Senate and sit at that table, we'll have that discussion," he told the panel.

When pressed, Axelrod insisted that the election season meant no debate should proceed. "This is not the time, he said. "We're not going to have that discussion right now."

There are two disturbing problems with Axelrod's statements. First and foremost is his suggestion that a Social Security policy debate should only be conducted between White House officials and U.S. senators — not between all government officials and the general public. It's a fundamentally elitist idea that evokes notions of smoky back rooms and secret deals. Not only that, it both contradicts basic notions of civic engagement and confirms Americans' fears about a government that wholly disregards the citizenry.

Along the same lines is Axelrod's insistence that even if we were to have a public debate about Social Security, we somehow shouldn't "have that discussion right now" because of the impending election.

While it is certainly true that a presidential contest tends to focus on silly frivolities (say, Paul Ryan's workout schedule or Joe Biden's photo with motorcyclists), and while it is undeniable that an election season tends to bring out the craziness in everyone, it is also true that those unfortunate realities are no justification to divorce the entire campaign from serious issues.

Elections, after all, aren't supposed to only be vapid exercises in bad reality TV. They are also supposed to be exercises in democratic participation, which means they are supposed to present We the People with a substantive policy discourse — one that helps us all cast informed votes.

This is a particularly important principle when it comes to Social Security — a program about which the Obama administration has been sending mixed signals.

The most recent signals, of course, came from the president himself, who has insisted that "what I'm not going to do, as a matter of principle, is to slash benefits or privatize Social Security."

Yet, during the first presidential debate in Denver, he nonetheless called for the program to be "tweaked" — a troubling reminder that last July, the Washington Post and CBS News ran stories headlined "In debt talks, Obama offers Social Security cuts" and "Obama proposes cuts to Social Security," respectively, with both quoting unnamed. Democratic officials leaking the prospect of big reductions in promised benefits. Likewise, at the Democratic National Convention this year, Vice President Biden criticized Republicans for not embracing the Social Security cuts championed by the Bowles-Simpson commission. Meanwhile, as some Democratic legislators have pushed to enact Obama's own 2008 campaign proposal to raise the Social Security payroll tax cap, the White House has been noticeably absent in voicing its support for such legislation.

In light of these equivocations, the key questions should be ringing in every voter's ear. If we can't have a debate about Social Security before we make a presidential choice, at what point can we ever have such a debate in a way that honors our democratic ideals? In Hillel's own words, if not now, when?

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. Email him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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Comments

3 Comments | Post Comment
As we saw from the first presidential "debate", We The People no longer get to decide anything based on reality and fact. All we get is bad "reality" TV where the horse-race and esthetics are more important than policy and the truth. Romney tells 27 lies In 38 minutes and never even gets called out once, but by golly he "won" because he interrupted more and acted like the bully he is. How can we have good democratic electoral participation when we don't have "substantive policy discourse"? (Which I guess is the whole point of this article!)

As far as cuts to our Social Security program, unfortunately I agree that we have to be ready to push back hard if Obama is re-elected. But that is no different than if Romney manages to steal the election through all the Republican voter suppression tactics that are being put in place throughout our country right now. Either way, the American middle-class is going to be screwed, but I still believe we have a better chance stopping Obama than Romney. There are enough Democrats who have to realize it would be political suicide for the Democratic Party to weaken Social Security. And thankfully, Obama hasn't mentioned privatization yet, which you know Romney certainly would propose.
Comment: #1
Posted by: A Smith
Fri Oct 5, 2012 10:12 AM
As we saw from the first presidential "debate", We The People no longer get to decide anything based on reality and fact. All we get is bad "reality" TV where the horse-race and esthetics are more important than policy and the truth. Romney tells 27 lies In 38 minutes and never even gets called out once, but by golly he "won" because he interrupted more and acted like the bully he is. How can we have good democratic electoral participation when we don't have "substantive policy discourse"? (Which I guess is the whole point of this article!)

As far as cuts to our Social Security program, unfortunately I agree that we have to be ready to push back hard if Obama is re-elected. But that is no different than if Romney manages to steal the election through all the Republican voter suppression tactics that are being put in place throughout our country right now. Either way, the American middle-class is going to be screwed, but I still believe we have a better chance stopping Obama than Romney. There are enough Democrats in Congress who have to realize it would be political suicide for the Democratic Party to weaken Social Security and who hopefully would opposed Obama's plan. And thankfully, Obama hasn't mentioned privatization yet, which you know Romney certainly would propose.
Comment: #2
Posted by: A Smith
Fri Oct 5, 2012 10:15 AM
As we saw from the first presidential "debate", We The People no longer get to decide anything based on reality and fact. All we get is bad "reality" TV where the horse-race and esthetics are more important than policy and the truth. Romney tells 27 lies In 38 minutes and never even gets called out once, but by golly he "won" because he interrupted more and acted like the bully he is. How can we have good democratic electoral participation when we don't have "substantive policy discourse"? (Which I guess is the whole point of this article!)

As far as cuts to our Social Security program, unfortunately I agree that we have to be ready to push back hard if Obama is re-elected. But that is no different than if Romney manages to steal the election through all the Republican voter suppression tactics that are being put in place throughout our country right now. Either way, the American middle-class is going to be screwed, but I still believe we have a better chance stopping Obama than Romney. There are enough Democrats in Congress who have to realize it would be political suicide for the Democratic Party to weaken Social Security and who hopefully would opposed Obama's plan. And thankfully, Obama hasn't mentioned privatization yet, which you know Romney certainly would propose.
Comment: #3
Posted by: A Smith
Fri Oct 5, 2012 10:17 AM
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