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Arizona shows Democrats' strength, weakness on retirement programs

June 13, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • Ron Barber, aide to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, right, won the race to serve out the rest of her term, a victory seen by Democratic pundits as a harbinger for November.
Ron Barber, aide to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, right, won the race… (Ross D. Franklin / Associated…)

Republicans last week got Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose successful campaign to retain his seat in a contentious recall election was, according to pundits, a bellwether that would indicate how the GOP would fare in November. Then Democrats on Tuesday got Ron Barber, the aide to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who defeated a  tea party  Republican in the race to fill out the rest of her term -- a contest that was also seen as a bellwether for November. So what have we learned?

November's going to be pretty wild.

If there's a less obvious takeaway from the Arizona election, it might have something to do with Social Security and Medicare. Republicans grumble that their candidate, Jesse Kelly, who lost to Giffords in a narrow contest in 2010, failed this time around only because Barber was the emotional favorite, not because voters preferred his politics (Barber was wounded in the same attack that left Giffords with a gunshot wound to the head, and he was her hand-picked successor). They might have a point, but the fact remains that the district in question has a comfortable GOP majority and Barber was heavily outspent. Meanwhile, the major area of difference between the two candidates concerned Medicare and Social Security, and it would be tough to deny that Kelly's hard-line stance on privatizing these federal entitlement programs scared off many of the district's elderly voters of both parties.

That's certainly the way Democratic leaders are seeing it. "This campaign previewed the message fight that will play out across the country in November: Democrats committed to protecting the middle class, Social Security and Medicare versus misleading Republican attacks on Obamacare and national Democrats," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; his comments were echoed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

If that's true, it's a shame -- not because the two parties don't have a major disagreement about these retirement programs, and not because debating them isn't worthwhile. It's a shame because neither party has an entirely sensible plan.

In a nutshell, the debate between Kelly and Barber, and to some extent between Republicans and Democrats nationwide, is over whether to phase out Social Security and alter Medicare over time, replacing them with private investment programs and a capped insurance pool that shift the risk and expense from government to individuals, or whether to simply maintain the status quo. Kelly, who echoed Texas Gov. Rick Perry in referring to Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme," thinks those who have paid into the system should still get benefits when they retire, but the system should be phased out and replaced with vouchers that people can invest as they see fit. This defeats the entire purpose of Social Security, which is a safety net for people who aren't expert investors and who don't want to assume the risks inherent in gambling on Wall Street. Republicans in the House of Representatives, meanwhile, approved a budget bill in March containing their answer to Obamacare, which among other things would cap annual Medicare spending at GDP plus 0.5%. That puts a big burden on seniors, who will be stuck paying the difference if the price of medical care rises faster than the cap.

Democrats want to position themselves as the party that aims to save these programs, yet they have been next to silent about how they'd do it. Leaving them alone isn't an option. The Social Security trustee projected in April that funding for retirement benefits will run short in 2033, unless changes, such as raising the cap on earnings subject to payroll taxes, are made. Don't expect Democrats running in close races this November to mention that; they'd rather be seen as the saviors of seniors without getting into a messy argument about what that entails. Medicare expenses, meanwhile, are growing at an unsustainable rate that is ballooning the federal deficit and that Obamacare isn't expected to do much to control, yet Democrats would rather argue about why the healthcare law should be saved than about how it could be improved.

Democrats want to be seen as the party that aims to preserve entitlement programs. To succeed, they're going to have to start doing some preserving.

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