A majority of working Americans have zero retirement savings. The three richest Americans hold more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the country — some 160 million Americans. So Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), having pushed through a trillion-dollar tax cut that lards its benefits on the richest Americans, announces he wants to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and make another run at repealing the Affordable Care Act.
He said this not in English, of course, but in political-ese. He noted that the rising budget deficit is “disturbing” and that “entitlement programs” were “the real drivers of the debt” and must be adjusted “to the demographics of the future.” That is Beltway code for cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He also promised to try again to repeal the ACA, calling the failure to achieve that “the one disappointment of this Congress.” Cuts in “entitlements,” he suggested, must be done in a bipartisan fashion, while ACA repeal is a partisan Republican fixation. If Democrats take the House, he will push for cuts in Social Security. If Republicans retain control, they will try to repeal Obamacare again.
Under President Trump and the Republican-led Congress, the deficit has exploded. The Congressional Budget Office projects it at $793 billion for the fiscal year that just ended (and headed to surpass $1 trillion), noting its rise was due to “recently enacted legislative changes,” especially the 2017 tax cuts.
Republicans pass tax cuts largely for the rich and for corporations, then use the exploding deficits to justify slashing core security programs that most Americans rely on. Social Security provides the majority of cash income for 61 percent of seniors, and 90 percent of income for one-third of the elderly.
Cutting these programs isn’t exactly popular. McConnell is getting criticized for handing Democrats a campaign issue, but this has been Republican gospel for years. After being reelected in 2004, President George W. Bush promised to use his political capital to privatize Social Security. House Republican leader Paul D. Ryan says he has dreamed about eliminating Medicaid since college. Republican governors blocked the expansion of Medicaid in several states and have joined in a lawsuit to get ACA declared unconstitutional, ending, among other things, its coverage of preexisting conditions. Trump proclaims he will defend Social Security and Medicare, but his budget proposal calls for cuts in those programs, and his Justice Department withdrew from defending the ACA in court.
McConnell’s heresy was to mention his plans a few weeks before the Nov. 6 midterm elections. As committed as Republicans are to cutting Social Security and Medicare, they are even more rabid about not admitting that in election campaigns. More than a dozen vulnerable Republicans scrubbed their websites to omit any mention of their pledge or vote to repeal Obamacare. This year, emulating Trump’s penchant for the big lie, many have been even more brazen — cross-dressing as Medicare’s defenders against Democrats who favor moving to a Medicare-for-all program. Trump himself weighed in with a characteristically dishonest opinion piece in USA Today, arguing that Democrats would “eviscerate Medicare.”
For the first time, however, Americans might be catching on to the shuck. Health care emerged as a leading issue this year, even before McConnell made his comments. Democrats are on the attack against Republicans who voted to repeal Obamacare, deprive millions of health insurance and end coverage of those with preexisting conditions. The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks paid advertising by candidates, super PACs and party committees, reported that from Sept. 18 to Oct. 15, almost half of the ads in federal races mentioned health care, including nearly 55 percent of pro-Democratic ads.
A Morning Consult-Politico poll taken Oct. 11-14 reports that among voters who prioritize senior issues such as Social Security and Medicare, Democrats enjoy a 19-point advantage (52-33) over Republicans. Seventeen percent of the voters reported these issues were their leading concern. In recent years, seniors have been the most conservative voting cohort, while having the highest turnout. Republicans won the senior vote convincingly in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Trump won 53 percent of the senior vote in 2016. If these concerns dent the Republican margin among seniors, a blue wave would be virtually assured.
This Republican duck-and-cover effort impedes the debate we need to have. Corporations continue to abandon pension plans; most Americans have no retirement plan at work. Boomers are beginning to retire, after laboring during the decades of unprecedented wage stagnation. Rising health-care costs continue to eat up small raises for workers. Congress should be moving to expand Social Security, not cut it, and to make health care universal and affordable, not try to weaken the programs we have. If Trump and Republicans succeed in their mendacious scare campaign against those calling for Medicare-for-all, they will torpedo progress on any of these issues. And for that, millions of Americans will pay dearly.