Where are the Richard Nixons of the Democratic Party?
Richard Nixon was known as a staunch anti-communist. It was Vice President Nixon who, in 1959, engaged in a famous “kitchen debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as the two were touring an American Exhibition in Moscow. Americans loved it. Pictures of a stern Nixon poking his finger at the communist leader went the mid-1950s version of viral.
So in February of 1972, when then-President Nixon announced his visit to China – the most populous communist country, and at that point not officially recognized by the US – he faced only mild opposition. With his anti-communist credentials, he was largely shielded from the “soft on communism” attacks that a left-leaning American politician would have faced. Nixon’s trip marked a new era of improved US-China relations. And the saying began: “Only Nixon could go to China.”
The Democratic Party needs to channel Richard Nixon on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Like it or not, those “entitlement” programs are going to change. The only question is whether the changes will come from a soft-landing plan, or a hard-crash collapse. Democratic Party participation is essential to reaching a good, soft landing.
Fact: Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid are unsustainable. They now eat up about 47% of the federal budget. They will consume more as the ratio of workers-to-retirees continues to drop. In 1955, there were 8 workers for each retiree; in 2015, the ratio had dropped to 2.8-1; by 2030 there will be a mere 2.3 workers per retiree. According to the 2016 Annual Report by the Social Security and Medicare Board of Trustees, Social Security will be depleted by 2034, Medicare by 2028.
Fact: Fixing these entitlement programs is essential to fixing our nation’s looming fiscal disaster. Our national debt is $19 trillion dollars, and increasing around a half-billion dollars each year. The interest payment on that debt is now $1.2 billion per day. And that is at today’s low interest rates. What mind-boggling amount will the debt cost each and every day when rates rise, as they surely will?
Fact: Republicans are vilified when they suggest changes to Social Security and Medicare. When Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, a Republican, proposed reforms to Medicare in 2011, a liberal group called “The Agenda Project” ran a nation-wide video showing a Paul Ryan look-alike pushing grandma and her wheelchair off the edge of a cliff. Such attacks succeed at intimidating the more flaccid politicians. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both promised “not to touch” Social Security and Medicare.
Which is why Democrats have to be involved in fixing Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. As the “liberal” party, Democrats will be largely safe from the pushing-grandma-off-the-cliff attacks. Given the popularity of Social Security and Medicare, neither party can do it alone. It will require a bipartisan effort.
As a start, Democrats and Republicans could perhaps revisit the 2010 Simpson-Bowles commission proposals, which combined changes to Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid (which Republicans like) with increased tax revenues through broadening the tax base (which Democrats like).
How likely is it that Democrats will take on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid? About as likely as an anti-communist like Richard Nixon flying to Beijing to shake hands with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. But for the US to travel the road to fiscal health, the collapsing bridges of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid have to be reformed. And it is going to take some Democrats to get there.