The Monica Lewinsky scandal may have helped save Social Security in the late 1990s. Now the scandal fever currently gripping Washington — IRS, Benghazi, Associated Press phone records — may save Social Security and Medicare two decades later.
Liberals who are dreading the scandal-mania that is taking hold should note that it contains a potential upside: It could make a Grand Bargain that includes cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits even less likely than it already is. That’s because when scandal grips Washington, a president actually needs his core supporters more than ever to ward it off, making it harder to do anything that will alienate them.
There is precedent for this. President Bill Clinton long entertained ambitions to dramatically reform Social Security, but those plans were shelved amid the Lewinsky crisis. While there is some argument over whether the crisis was the cause, it did make him more reluctant to alienate Democratic supporters. As John Harris put it in his book about the Clinton presidency: “Come 1998, when Clinton needed every Democratic vote possible in order to survive the Republican attack over Monica Lewinsky, the work of challenging his own ground to a halt. He had no political latitude to push for the reform of the entitlement programs for the aged.”
To be sure, the current state of scandal mania in Washington is still light years away from the late 1990s. There’s no telling how serious the IRS and Associated Press stories will prove or whether they’ll ever be directly tied to Obama himself, while Clinton was directly on the hook for perjury and sexual conduct. But if the Obama scandal train continues down the track — as Paul Waldman argues persuasively that it will — it will likely make any Grand Bargain a virtual impossibility.
Indeed, some leading liberals and labor officials are hoping this proves to be the case if the scandals continue. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with this scandal talk,” Mike Lux, a leading progressive strategist who fought in the Clinton impeachment wars, tells me. “But one thing I do know from the Clinton years is that presidents need their bases completely fired up and fighting for them when the scandal stuff hits. Anything that President Obama does to alienate the base, like cutting Medicare and Social Security, would hurt him badly when he needs the base to the maximum. The scandal talk makes a Grand Bargain less likely.”
In Obama’s case, the dynamic is exacerbated by the current strain of GOP radicalism. While there was some bipartisan agreement behind cutting Social Security in the 1990s, the absolute refusal of today’s Republicans to entertain any new revenues from the rich already makes a Grand Bargain very unlikely, and the Obama hatred on the right — and the belief that he may go down — makes it even more so.
“If enough people in the Republican base believe that the Obama administration is going down in scandal, Republicans are not necessarily going to want to throw him a lifeline by giving him any kind of deal,” GOP strategist John Feehery tells me.
Indeed, some on the left are hoping that the current bout of scandal chatter drives home to Obama the true nature of today’s GOP and induces him to give up hope on any kind of deal. We’ve already seen that GOP extremism on taxes has prevented any Grand Bargain — in effect saving Obama from making entitlement cuts — and that could be borne out again if the scandal-mania continues.
“This episode should get through to him that Republican leaders mean no good for him and his vision for the country, and that there is no common ground,” says Damon Silvers, the policy director for the AFL-CIO. He added that if the scandal mongering continues, “it will lessen the prospects for a Grand Bargain significantly.”
Back to the 1990s? It’s an awful prospect, to be sure, but maybe there’s a hidden upside.