A Listicle of Liberal Doom
Writing at The Atlantic, Molly Ball tells liberals to quit being so damned optimistic int he wake of this year’s election. There are four big disappointments in store, she claims, and they are as follows: The possibility of entitlement cuts, the short-term powerlessness of Senator Elizabeth Warren, the weak tea filibuster reform Majority Leader Harry Reid may accept, and the profound unlikelihood of a legislative response to climate change any time soon.
I think she’s off-base on Reid — I simply can’t imagine he’d get the whole conversation of filibuster reform started if he was going to tie himself to a 67-vote threshold, as Ball implies he might — correct on Warren, and right-but-wrong on social insurance cuts and climate. When it comes to the latter, Congress indeed will not act; but as Tim Noah outlines, the president can still do a whole lot of good (or mitigate the bad) on climate change with some of his Executive powers. The EPA can make further rulings on carbon emissions that would be a BFD. When I went to Kentucky a few years ago to study mountaintop removal and its opponents, hopes abounded that Sheila Jackson would issue new carbon limits during the president’s first term. She did; she can do more.
But it’s on entitlements (my preferred phrase is social insurance) where Ball gets the most tangled up. Because although there’s been no shortage of angst on the left in response to Obama’s potential social insurance cuts, what Ball actually describes as being maybe-sorta on the table is — except for one major alteration — the kind of stuff liberals can either stomach or even support:
Obama has talked very tough on tax rates for income over $250,000, but you don’t hear nearly as much strong rhetoric from the White House about progressives’ other ironclad fiscal-cliff demand: protecting Social Security and Medicare. Back in 2011, during Obama and House Speaker John Boehner’s failed attempt at a big deal on the debt ceiling, Obama was theoretically open to the kinds of changes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is now advocating, such as raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 and increasing premiums for recipients with higher incomes.
If a fiscal-cliff deal gets made, chances are it’ll include some concessions along those lines. Obama’s opening offer to Republicans included $400 billion in deficit reduction from unspecified changes to entitlements. Suzy Khimm has a helpful rundown of what entitlement changes Democrats have signaled a willingness to consider.
Thus far, defenders of Social Security have been gratified to hear White House Press Secretary Jay Carney say changes to the program are off limits in the negotiations, and even the $400 billion in the president’s offer isn’t too alarming — that savings could come from reducing payments to pharmaceutical companies rather than changing eligibility or benefits, says Jeff Hauser, spokesman for the AFL-CIO, which has been campaigning hard against entitlement-benefit cuts. “Our red lines continue to be clear: December 31 should be the last day of the failed Bush tax cuts for the richest 2 percent, and there is no need for middle-class beneficiaries of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to contribute to deficit reduction for a deficit they did nothing to cause,” Hauser said. But while the group would loudly protest any proposed cuts to benefits, he said, “we are open to improvements in the cost-effectiveness of our health-care system.”
If you actually read what Ball wrote, rather than interpret what she wrote through the prism of the click-bait headline (not a criticism; I don’t hate the player instead of the game) you’ll see that the total of things Democrats are considering that the rank-and-file will hate is one — the raise of the Medicare eligibility age. On that score I am not super inclined to be like Jonathan Chait and give DC Dems the go-ahead (see David Dayen for more). But as bad as that idea is, it’s not the kind of major betrayal Ball’s piece would lead you to expect.
Truth is, as long as you’re willing to withstand some trial balloon reports about Dems “considering” various things they quite likely won’t accept, the perilous lame duck session looks likely to end without a Grand Bargain at all.