In the Social Security Debate, Today's Democrats Are Worse Than Yesterday's Republicans

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 1:29 PM EST

Having “retooled’’ his Presidency for a more open accommodation of the center right, Obama will soon be overseeing the battle to launch a dismantling of the Social Security system.

His government has, from the start, been reminiscent of the Clinton years, so it’s safe to say that we can expect more triangulation. Clinton’s adoption of Republican tropes led him to fulfill some of the conservatives’ fondest dreams: His administration countenanced the demise of the banking regulations originally established by the Depression-era Glass Steagall Act, and the destruction of the welfare system established in the 1930s and expanded in the 1960s. Obama will provide much the same function on Social Security. Without entirely destroying the popular program, he will support cuts that go beyond anything that should rightly happen during a Democratic administration.

Of course, the Democrats will say that it isn’t their fault: It all happened because of that horrid Tea Party, dragging conservative Republicans even further to the right. This suggests that Democrats had no choice but to head them off at the rightward pass, as if standing and fighting simply wasn’t an option—and as if they didn’t still hold the Senate and the White House.  

What makes this especially disconcerting, for anyone who has lived long enough to remember earlier political eras, is how favorably the Republicans of the past compare to the Democrats of the present on many points.

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Tracking back to the New Deal, one can find Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio—the most prominent conservative Republican of his time, later identified by John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage as one of the five most important senators in history–registering his support for Social Security. A champion of private enterprise and enemy of labor unions, Taft bashed Roosevelt’s “socialistic” programs every which way, fighting to reduce runaway government and even opposing entry into World War II. But at the height of the Great Depression, he also supported the new Social Security program, as well as public housing and public education.

Taft embodied the tenets of Main Street middle western life before the Second World War. And he was not unreservedly laissez faire, nor was he anti-government. He believed in the intervention and utility of the federal government where he deemed it necessary, and that included providing an adequate, if not generous, public welfare system.

Taft ran for president three times and never made it. But Eisenhower, the war hero who became a popular Republican president, carried some of these same basic tenets into the postwar era. Eisenhower was not opposed to federal intervention in the economy and, for example, backed the creation of an interstate highway system, which became a vast public works program. And Eisenhower not only supported Social Security, but took steps to enlarge the program. According to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission:

Dwight Eisenhower was the principal force behind the greatest single expansion of Social Security beneficiaries in the history of the program. He led the legislative drive to add over ten million Americans to the system. Here’s how it developed.

When the Social Security Act became law in 1935 its purposes were primarily aimed at factory workers and other employees of business organizations. The legislative process leading to passage of the law was both lengthy and contentious. Large numbers of working American’s were left out of the original Old Age and Survivors Insurance coverage. No major changes in the Social Security law had been made since its initial passage.

During the presidential campaign of 1952, candidate Eisenhower made it clear that he believed the federal government played a rightful role in establishing the Social Security system, but he made no promises concerning its future. However, after the election it became clear that the Republicans would have control, by slim margins, of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This changed the political and legislative landscape considerably.

Previously, expansion of the Social Security system or increasing the level of payments to retired Americans had been given no chance to succeed in the Congress because there were enough conservative Democrats (and the majority of Republicans) who would vote against such bills. With a Republican President it now appeared likely that the majority of congressional Republicans would honor their President and support his initiatives. Among the new legislative possibilities, action on Social Security now seemed possible.

Thirteen days after taking his oath of office, President Eisenhower delivered his first State of the Union message to Congress and, when discussing the need for greater effectiveness of government programs, he said, “The provisions of the old-age and survivors insurance law should promptly be extended to cover millions of citizens who have been left out of the social security system.”

The following week, during a White House meeting of the House and Senate Republican leadership, Eisenhower brought up the Social Security expansion proposal and asked America’s most famous living conservative, Senator Robert A. Taft, if he would support the initiative. When he received a positive reply he knew that the possible had just become the probable. Before the end of the month, Eisenhower appointed a presidential commission to study the Social Security system’s deficiencies and submit a detailed report on specific reform measures. In his public statement creating the commission, the President said, “It is a proper function of government to help build a sturdy floor over the pit of personal disaster, and to this objective we are all committed.”

Those opposed to the initiative stressed their belief that retirement income was the responsibility of every individual and the federal government should not be involved. One citizen should not have to pay for the old age necessities of another. President Eisenhower responded to this notion during his press conference on June 17, 1953 with these remarks: “A strict application, let us say, of economic theory, at least as taught by Adam Smith, would be, ‘Let these people take care of themselves; during their active life they are supposed to save enough to take care of themselves.’ In this modern industry, dependent as we are on mass production, and so on, we create conditions where that is no longer possible for everybody. So the active part of the population has to take care of all the population, and if they haven’t been able during the course of their active life to save up enough money, we have these systems.”

You know it’s a measure of how far this country has moved to the right that someone like myself could wax nostalgic for the likes of Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft. (Next stop: Remembrances of the Nixon years, when the richest Americans were taxed at a rate of 70 percent.) Yet now we see the historic approach of these two major Republicans figures—the icon of the Senate and the storied war hero—submerged beneath the threat of the Tea Party adherents. And it is all happening under the listless hand of Obama, while the Democratic mainstream sits passively back and watches the demise of the programs that made their party great.

In the end, history most likely will judge that the final blows against the New Deal came not from the Republicans, but from weak or opportunistic Democratic politicians–first Clinton, then Obama.

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