Markos Moulitsas: Back to Social Security

Markos Moulitsas: Back to Social Security
© Greg Nash

It wasn’t too long ago — 2012, to be exact — when Maryland Rep. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenProgressive tax-the-rich push gains momentum Senators pressure Trump to help end humanitarian crisis in Kashmir Democratic candidates are building momentum for a National Climate Bank MORE came out as a solid supporter of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction effort. “That mix of cuts, but also revenue, is the right way to go,” he said at the time. As the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, his words carried extra weight.

And those words enraged progressive Democrats fighting to protect Social Security not just from Republicans but from members of their own party who were eager to slash the nation’s most cherished social program. The fact that Social Security didn’t add a dime to the deficit didn’t deter the cutters, nor did the fact that the program would remain perfectly solvent as is for at least a generation. What’s more, the easiest fix to that future shortfall — raising the income cap on payroll taxes — was inexplicably ignored. Too many Democrats had Social Security in their crosshairs, and Van Hollen was cheering them along.

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Perhaps that wasn’t surprising, given the anti-Social Security Beltway consensus. Luckily for everyone, the GOP’s refusal to consider even the mildest tax increases doomed Simpson-Bowles, and Social Security survived unscathed. Republican intransigence stopped conservatives from killing their most hated government program; sometimes, their inability to govern comes in handy for the rest of us.

Now, just three years later, Chris Van Hollen has changed his tune. “You don’t save Social Security by cutting Social Security,” he said last week. Interesting! Even more interesting, he now backs legislation to expand Social Security by funding more generous benefits via tax increases on the wealthy. 

Welcome words — but why the sudden change of heart?

Well, Van Hollen hopes to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski next year. But first he must survive a Democratic primary. And as of now, his primary opponent is liberal champion Donna EdwardsDonna F. EdwardsDemocratic Senate candidate blasts own party for racial 'foghorn' Autoworkers' union endorsing Van Hollen in MD Senate race Dem leaders' hard sell pays off on omnibus MORE, a fierce and outspoken supporter of increased Social Security (and other government) benefits. Unlike Van Hollen, Edwards has never wavered in her convictions, and as such has rallied activist liberals from Maryland and across the country behind her. She’s another Elizabeth Warren in the making. 

“As an original co-sponsor of the Social Security 2100 Act to expand Social Security benefits, I am thrilled that more and more elected officials are recognizing that too many of America’s seniors live on the edge,” Edwards coyly needled Van Hollen in an email to supporters. “Too many Democrats — to say nothing of Republicans — remain all too willing to hurt grandparents, retired veterans, and the disabled in the name of ‘compromise.’ ”

Van Hollen has certainly earned progressives’ distrust, and the liberal choice in this primary is clear. But this turn of events has significance beyond Maryland. For the first time, Democrats aren’t on the defensive on Social Security. This is no longer about preventing cuts, or staving off Republican austerity. Republicans may hate the thought of seniors having a little more financial security, but we finally have a Democratic Party with a positive agenda for bolstering the bottom line for retirement security. 

This must be an especially welcome development for Duncan Black, the blogger who sparked this debate not just on his blog but in his column in USA Today. The Cliffs Notes version? “People say we should cut Social Security — I say, let’s expand it,” he explained. It’s a simple message, yet right on the policy and right on the politics. It’s just too bad that it’s taken Democrats so long to jump aboard.

Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos.