Democrats, don't screw this up

While President Obama was right to say that there were no winners in the Republican government shutdown and debt ceiling debacle, Democrats have clearly yielded previously unfathomable political gains from the GOP’s obstinance.  

Polling conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), for example, shows that Republican incumbents trail in 37 of nearly 61 Districts surveyed thanks to the Republican shutdown.  A national Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed that, following the GOP shutdown, 48 percent of all registered voters said they would elect a Democrat to Congress versus just 40 percent who’d vote for a Republican.

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In short, if the 2014 election were held today, Democrats would likely seize control of the House, something that all but the most optimistic observers thought impossible before the GOP decided to take the U.S. economy to the brink of collapse.

While that turn of fortune should give Democrats much to cheerabout, a handful of Washington Democrats including President Obama are bumbling towards the one way Democrats could screw up their chances of capitalizing on the Republican Shutdown and possibly retake the House in 2014: Supporting cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.  

While Democrats can and do disagree on the short-term necessity of strengthening Social Security and Medicare programs, agreeing to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits after the failure of the Republican shutdown would be nothing short of seizing electoral disaster out of the jaws of victory in 2014 for three reasons.

First, cutting earned benefits is tremendously unpopular with voters across the ideological spectrum.  This summer, along with a number of our progressive allies, Democracy for America released polling conducted by PPP showing the tremendous unpopularity of the White House-supported Chained CPI Social Security cuts in red states like Kentucky (74 percent against), blue states like Hawaii (64 percent against) and purple states like Iowa (70 percent against), among others.  

Moreover, because of a growing retirement crisis caused by decades of declining wages and the 2008 economic collapse, wide majorities of Americans in those same Red, Blue and Purple states actually think we should be expanding Social Security benefits, not cutting them.  The truth is, while cutting benefits that working people earn over their whole lives might be popular in the salons of Georgetown and Dupont Circle, it’s expanding Social Security that would shore up the opportunities created for Democrats in House Districts that are now in play thanks to the GOP’s shutdown.

Second, most Republicans know just how deeply unpopular cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits are and are likely to use the mere talk of cuts to confuse voters and stem losses at the polls in 2014. Following Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) infamous Wall Street Journal OpEd in which he proposed using the GOP shutdown to go after earned benefits rather than Obamacare, the National Review’s Andrew Stiles reported via Twitter that, “Conservative aides I talk to are flummoxed as to why Ryan, et al, want to shift focus from Obamacare (unpopular) to Medicare/SS (v. popular).”  

Remember, many of the most strident Tea Party members won their seats by running misleading ads attacking Democrats for making “cuts” to Medicare to pass Obamacare.  In 2010, those false attacks cost long-time protectors of earned benefits, like Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), their seats. If Democrats go along with the White House’s plans to cut Social Security via the Chained CPI, just imagine what those same ads will look like in 2014, when they are actually factually accurate.

Finally, for Democrats who feel they shouldn’t be swayed by public opinion or petty politics, there’s no reason to believe that coming out firmly against benefits cuts and for Social Security expansion requires making “compromise” a dirty word.  There would still be plenty of room to work with reasonable Republicans to strengthen Social Security and Medicare over the long term by, for example, eliminating the antiquated income cap on the payroll tax and implementing health care delivery systems reform that could save hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade alone.

Make no mistake, the electoral dividends Democrats have seen emerge following the GOP’s government shutdown and debt ceiling debacle are real and have the potential to be lasting.  

However, to avoid screwing up the tremendous gift Republicans have given them, Democrats in Congress need to stand up and make clear that they will reject any deal that cuts Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits and instead deal with our growing retirement security crisis head-on by expanding Social Security.

Dean is the chair of Democracy for America, a national progressive organization with one million members nationwide.